By day, Florrie Fox manages Color Me Read bookstore in Georgetown, Washington D.C. By night, she creates her own intricately detailed coloring books for adults, filling the pages with objects that catch her eye. There's plenty of inspiration in her new apartment—a beautiful carriage house belonging to Professor John Maxwell, Florrie's boss. He offers the property to Florrie rent-free with one condition—she must move in immediately to prevent his covetous sister and nephew from trying to claim it.
When the professor's nephew, Delbert, arrives, he proves just as sketchy as Florrie feared. But the following morning, Delbert has vanished. It's not until she visits the third floor of the store that Florrie makes a tragic discovery—there's a trap door in the landing, and a dead Delbert inside. The esteemed Professor Maxwell is an obvious suspect, but Florrie is certain this case isn't so black and white. Doodling clues, she begins to consider other colorful characters on the scene, all with a motive for murder. With a killer drawing closer, Florrie will need to think outside the lines . . . before death makes his mark again.
Release date: February 27, 2018
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 304
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Color Me Murder
I had just stepped inside the front door of Color Me Read, the bookstore I managed. The owner, Professor John Maxwell, bounded down the stairs. During the four years I had worked at the store, Professor Maxwell had arrived early to contemplate curious matters of history and missing treasures. Sometimes he slept in his office or arrived in the dead of night to pursue some theory in his vast library of uncommon books.
He rubbed his salt-and-pepper beard with one hand. Along his sideburns, his hair turned snowy white. But black pepper crept back in and nearly took over on the top of his head. I guessed him to be about sixty-five. His bronzed skin was as wrinkled as the old maps he constantly perused. I had tried to sketch his face at home, but he would have to model for me to get those creases exactly right. The skin just under his eyebrows had drooped, covering the outer edges of his upper eyelids. The effect was enchanting. His violet eyes were spirited but kind, as though he had discovered secrets as yet unknown to mankind, like a wizard. I had seen a photo of him as a young man and there was no doubt that women must have chased him. Even now, he exuded a powerful presence.
“Florrie! My little artiste. Have you found a place to live yet?”
For years I had rented a tiny apartment in Reston, Virginia, but I longed to live closer to work in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC. I had looked around but rent in the city was high, and I had blown past my roommate years. I looked at every miserable, tiny studio as it came on the market but the dark, dreary holes in the wall were expensive and far too depressing for me. “No. Do you have a lead?”
“How would you like to live in my carriage house? It’s an easy walk to work and quite private.”
I didn’t know what to say. “That, that would be great,” I stammered. But a cloud of doubt descended on me fast. “How much is the rent?” Georgetown prices were well beyond my means.
Professor Maxwell’s mouth shifted, and he scratched his head. “My sister is pressing me to let her son live in the carriage house behind our family home. I am very sorry to say that her son is a thoroughly odious young man whom I detest. I won’t charge you so much as one penny of rent if you’ll do me this favor.”
Sold! Professor Maxwell had taught history for several decades. I assumed he had interacted with enough young men to know whereof he spoke. But I couldn’t quite believe my good luck. “Are you sure? It doesn’t seem right to freeload.”
“Nonsense. It would be a personal favor to me. And frankly, it would be better for all of us if you lived closer to the store. Snow days, late events, and such, you know.”
“I have a cat,” I said doubtfully. Peaches was like a baby to me. I wouldn’t dream of moving without her.
“Okay!” How could I pass up an offer like that?
“Wonderful.” He smiled, clearly pleased, and turned to go. He didn’t even take one step before he turned back to me and raised his forefinger. “But there is one caveat.”
“You must have it looking like you live there by six this afternoon.”
It was nine thirty on a Saturday morning, and I was scheduled to work until five.
As though he read my thoughts, he said, “I’ll cover for you. Get going!”
I rushed out the door before he could change his mind. It wasn’t until I was on Interstate 66 frantically calling my sister and parents for their assistance that it dawned on me that I had never seen the carriage house. It could be as dreary as the other rentals I had hated.
My father offered to procure a small U-Haul. My mother and sister agreed to meet me at the apartment. By noon, it looked like my home had been ransacked. We sat on the floor to eat Chinese takeout.
My father, who usually approved of my life decisions, shook his head. “I can’t believe you would take the place without seeing it first. It must be a dump. Maybe I should check it out before we go to the trouble of hauling everything over there.”
My sister, Veronica, protested vehemently. “This is so exciting. It’s just like Florrie to move into a home she has never seen. No one else would ever do that. She’s such a free spirit.”
I had never understood how Veronica and I came out of the same gene pool. A long-legged natural blonde, my sister looked just like my mother had in her youth. Mom was pudgier now but they were both energetic, long-legged extroverts. They had been homecoming queens and popular cheerleaders. I, on the other hand, was quiet and had been accused by my mother more than once of being retiring. I much preferred to pull out my sketch pad and draw, or curl up with a good mystery. I wasn’t anti-social but some days I liked my cat, Peaches, more than most people. Unlike Mom and Veronica, I had long brown hair and could reach five feet two inches if I tried to stretch a bit.
“I don’t know, Mike,” said Mom. “The Maxwell family goes back generations in Washington and the house in which the professor lives is on the historic register.”
“How do you know that?” I asked.
“Everyone who grew up in Washington back then knew about the Maxwell family. John was quite dashing and frequently in the news. I remember when his little girl was kidnapped. It was huge news in Washington. Such a sad story.”
“Did they find her?” I helped myself to more lo mein.
“It was so long ago. Seems like they didn’t. She was with another little girl at a birthday party. The kind of safe place where parents drop off their children all the time. Parents all over Washington were having second thoughts about where they left their children.”
“Weren’t original carriage houses for horses?” my father asked, clearly not listening to Mom’s story.
Mom cringed a little when she said, “I suppose it could be like an old stable.”
My father, the sensible one, offered again to check it out and report back. “It’s probably a studio above a garage.”
There really wasn’t time for that, though, and we needed Dad to help us move the bulkier items like the sofa and mattress. In the end, it took longer to pack my art supplies than my clothes.
At three o’clock, with Peaches secure in her carrier, our motley caravan set off for my new home.
A uniformed butler met us at the driveway to the white brick Maxwell mansion. He gestured for us to drive through and past the main house to a one-and-a-half-story building painted vibrant Key West pink.
When we stepped out of our vehicles, the butler introduced himself as Mr. DuBois. A petite man, he appeared older than Professor Maxwell, but he stood quite straight and held his chin high. A man with dignity. He shook each of our hands and welcomed me. “Thank you for rescuing us, Miss Florrie. I fear Delbert, the dreaded nephew, would likely have slit our throats as we slept.”
My mother gasped.
The excitement drained out of me. What had I done? Mostly, I was angry with Professor Maxwell for not having mentioned that his nephew might be violent. It wasn’t too late to turn around and go back to Reston and the security of my old apartment. Or I could sleep over at my parents’ house.
My father wrapped a protective arm around my shoulder. “I hope you jest.”
Mr. DuBois did not smile. “I would sooner have the Joker living in the carriage house.” He cast a scowling glance at Peaches in her carrier. “I abhor felines, yet I’m willing to deal with yours in order to avoid Delbert the devil. Take care to keep your cat in your quarters.”
Mr. DuBois led us to a white door flanked by bluish-green shutters. A brass mail slot reminded me of a mouth in the middle of the door and two small quarter round windows peered at us like eyes.
My dad whispered to me, “I’ll stay over with you until we straighten out this Delbert problem.”
“Dad! I’m sure that was an exaggeration.” At least I hoped it was. Any fears I had burst like overfilled balloons as soon as I stepped inside.
The living room and kitchen had been combined into one large space. On the side away from the main house, the wall was fitted with six sets of eight-foot-tall French doors. A stone fireplace was flanked by what appeared to be ancient and perhaps original columns crafted from finely hewn giant tree trunks so big that I wouldn’t have been able to circle one with my arms. The ceiling over the living area was lofted and held up by wooden beams of the same bleached pine shade as the columns and the hardwood floor. I turned slowly, taking in the built-in bookcases that surrounded the fireplace and lined the long wall that faced the main house. The kitchen had been updated with silver-white granite countertops and a substantial refrigerator. The baker in me noted the exquisite oven and cooktop.
Beyond the French doors lay the most amazing part of all. I drifted toward them for a better look. The property had been enclosed with a high wooden fence that barely peeked through a carefully planted forest. Trees, bushes, and flowering vines had grown together so tightly that it was like a private garden in the woods. Slate stones formed a dining patio and a pergola offered shade over it. Narrow slate paths led to far corners and in the middle of it all, the sun caught flashes of goldfish as they swam in a pond.
“I’m sorry, Mr. DuBois,” I choked. “There must be a mistake.”
“Not at all. Now, may I lend a hand with unpacking so you will be settled before Delbert and his mother arrive? It would be best if the U-Haul were not here then. Professor Maxwell’s sister can be quite disagreeable.”
By five in the afternoon, the living room and kitchen brimmed with my belongings. The bookshelves had been filled, a bit haphazardly because of our hurry, but my art collection punctuated the spaces between books nicely. My bed had been set up in the single bedroom upstairs over the kitchen, and we had even tossed some clothes into a hamper to make it look lived in.
My father and Veronica took off to return the U-Haul. I had just put on water for tea when my mom screamed.
I looked up just in time to see a portly woman and a man retreat from the French doors and disappear around the side of the carriage house.
Mom’s face had gone pasty. “Did you see them? They cupped their hands against the glass and peered in here. Oh, Florrie.” She shook her head. “I don’t know what kind of mess is going on in Professor Maxwell’s family, but maybe you should make other arrangements. I won’t sleep a wink knowing that you’re here by yourself.”
I had to admit that I harbored doubts, too. But I had known the professor for five years and it wouldn’t have been at all like him to put me in peril. “Why would Professor Maxwell offer me the carriage house if he thought it would be dangerous?”
Mom swallowed hard. “Some people always put themselves first.”
I gazed around the beautiful room. The thing was—I wanted to stay. I wanted to walk two blocks to work. I wanted to be part of the Georgetown scene. And most of all, I wanted to sketch in the serene garden. Why did it have to turn out this way? Feeling melancholy, I poured tea for both of us. I had just handed a mug to my mom when someone knocked on the door.
“Don’t answer it,” she hissed.
“Mom!” I approached the door slowly, which made no sense but seemed like the right thing to do. As I drew closer, I saw Professor Maxwell standing outside. “It’s okay, Mom. It’s the professor.”
I opened the door and Professor Maxwell stepped inside. “Ah! Linda Fox,” he said to my mom, “how lovely to see you.” He pecked my mother on both cheeks in a very European way. “I have come to apologize for the rude behavior of my sister and her offspring. They had no business sneaking around the carriage house. Alas, I obviously anticipated that they would not believe me when I said I had a tenant. I expected their boorish manners would lead them to poke around. My sister knows better than that, but I fear her husband has taught her and their son his coarse ways.”
“Mr. DuBois said your nephew would kill you in the middle of the night.” My mom looked him straight in the eyes when she spoke. I had no idea she had that kind of moxie.
To my utter surprise, Professor Maxwell burst into laughter. “That DuBois. Always prone to drama. I’m sorry if he frightened you.” He lowered his voice as though he was confiding in us. “He watches entirely too many true crime programs on TV. DuBois sees murder everywhere. Frankly, my nephew Delbert barely has the grit to tie his own shoes. I have tried to take him with me on trips, but he’s uncomfortable if he’s more than a mile from a Starbucks. Must have gotten those genes from his father. He’s a con artist, for sure, but not violent. In any event, as my sister and her son were thwarted in their plan to appropriate the carriage house, they have now departed to inspect other lodging. You needn’t worry about them. DuBois refuses to cook for them, so I shall entertain them in a restaurant this evening. Now that their plans have been dashed, I trust they will be on their merry way after dinner.”
“So it’s safe for Florrie to stay here?”
At twenty-eight, I felt foolish when I heard my mother ask that question as though I were a child. Nevertheless, part of me was glad she inquired, as I wasn’t sure I’d have been bold enough to ask such a thing of my employer.
“Of course. Color Me Read would be a disaster without Florrie running the show. She’s like a daughter to me. I would never put her in a dangerous situation. DuBois showed up the moment you arrived, right?”
“Yes,” I said.
Professor Maxwell grinned. “DuBois has been with my family a very long time but he’s a bit of a worrywart. Not much happens here without his knowledge. I tease him about being part hawk. He’ll know if Florrie so much as sneezes. I dare say that with DuBois on top of things, we’re safer here than at the bookstore.”
“That’s a relief. It’s such a beautiful spot. Florrie’s sister is sorry there aren’t two bedrooms.”
Frankly, I was relieved about that feature. I looked forward to drawing in the peaceful backyard. Considering our differences, Veronica and I got along very well together. But I cherished my quiet time and Veronica was always lively.
“I’m very sorry if DuBois frightened you. He’s a splendid man. You’ll grow to like him, Florrie.”
My father returned just as the professor left. They shook hands and spoke a minute before Dad barreled into my new quarters. “I hear that was all nonsense about the nephew. You know the professor better than any of us, Florrie. What do you think? Do you want me to stay overnight?”
I could tell he wanted to go home and sleep in his own bed. I assured Dad that I would be fine and sent my parents on their way.
No doubt exhausted by the move, Peaches, a tabby with markings all colors of chocolate and an exotic smattering of peach, had curled up in her favorite plush leopard print bed. One paw draped across her eye as though she meant to block out the world.
I checked the large atomic clock that reset itself daily and was always correct. Fifteen past six. The store would be open until ten to catch the evening crowds of browsers. I had been scheduled to work and felt like I should go in for the remainder of the day.
I dashed up the stairs and hopped in the shower, glad to freshen up after the move. The shower helped me find a second wind after the busy day. I stepped into a skirt printed with scenes of Paris in shades of turquoise and matched it with a square-necked white top and white sandals.
In spite of Professor Maxwell’s assurances about dreadful Delbert, I checked to be absolutely certain that all the French doors were locked. Satisfied that Peaches would be safe, I locked the front door and walked the two blocks to the store. I felt thoroughly spoiled to be living so close.
The second I entered the front door, Helen Osgood descended upon me.
“Where have you been? I’ve been filling in for you all day!” She tapped the golden watch on her wrist. “I have plans tonight.” She stopped being agitated for a moment and beamed. “That cute guy I like so much was here again today.”
Behind her, Bob Turpin, who was always starting a diet the next day, turned his eyes up to the ceiling and stuck out his tongue. It was all I could do not to laugh.
Helen hurried behind the register and retrieved her purse. She tossed her glorious mane of rich copper hair over her shoulder. Helen was frustrated by her job at the bookstore. I had trouble relating to that, but I noticed that she didn’t read much. She had become the store expert on children’s books, though, and had even instituted an hour on Saturday mornings when she read to children. She seemed happiest when she was surrounded by kids.
“The next time you decide to take a day off, give a person advance notice, okay?” she grumbled.
I decided it was best not to tell her what I had been doing. I wasn’t sure why, but it felt like the prudent thing to do. “I’m sorry, Helen. Professor Maxwell said he would fill in for me.”
“He’s been here all day, driving me nuts. There’s a guy in a blue shirt looking for you. See you Monday.” She flew out the door, and at once the atmosphere in the bookstore was calm and more pleasant.
Bob sighed and shook his head. “I don’t get it. What’s attractive about wearing your hair short on the sides and full of gel to make it stand up in the middle? That guy she likes looks like a skinny bird with a crest.”
I glanced up at his sweet pudgy face. Bob’s dark brown hair fell relatively flat against his head. “Bob Turpin! I believe you have a crush on Helen.”
His face flushed raspberry, and he studied his shoes. I didn’t want to put her down to discourage him, but I figured it was fairly hopeless. “She’d be lucky to have you.”
“You think?” he asked eagerly.
“Any girl would be lucky. Now, I’d better find that guy in the blue shirt.”
“Good luck. It’s not like it’s a color many men wear.” He plucked at his own light blue shirt.
I laughed at him and peered into the front room, which had a fireplace and cushy leather sofas. So I was looking for a guy in a blue shirt. Navy blue? Denim blue? Sky blue? To my dismay, I found him right away.
Norman. Ugh. My skin prickled at the sight of him. I had dated Norman Spratt very briefly. His parents were friends of my parents, and they all dreamed of us as a fabulous couple, including, apparently, Norman himself. I wondered if he liked me because no other women had ever been vaguely polite to him. Maybe I was the only one who had ever agreed to a date.
Norman had a master’s degree in turf grass management. Now, I had no problem accepting a need for people who knew how to grow a perfect golf course or make sure stadium fields were healthy. But hearing about grass growing was more boring than watching grass grow. At the ripe old age of thirty, Norman had a round head, sparse hair, and a flaccid beer belly that would have been more interesting had it actually been the result of drinking beer. Poor Norman was simply a bore.
I wasn’t particularly dynamic myself, so it pained me to be shallow, but a two-hour date with Norman dragged by like an eighteen-hour flight and was equally exhausting. In the world of colored pencils, Norman was walrus pink. In fact, he was shaped somewhat like a walrus now that I thought about it.
“Florrie!” Norman smiled at me, and the other man peering at coloring books whipped around and stared me.
“Are these really your books?” asked Norman.
I was proud of my adult coloring books. I had started drawing doodles with crayons as soon as I could hold one. Color it in, everyone had instructed me, but I was always more interested in adding details to the pictures. I nodded shyly. “Yes.”
“They’re really cool. I knew you liked to draw but this is actually pretty impressive.”
I thought he meant that as a compliment, not the backhanded slap it was. I sighed. “Thanks. Is there something I can help you with?”
Norman flushed. “I miss seeing you. What time do you get off? Maybe we could have drinks.”
Noooooo! Oh no. How was I going to get out of this? “I’m closing the store tonight, and it has been an exceptionally long day for me. It would be too late, and I’m bushed.”
“Tomorrow? How about brunch?”
Torture! Maybe his lack of experience with women meant he didn’t understand a brush-off? I tried not to shudder at the thought of brunch with Norman. The long silences while he gazed at me—ugh. There was only one thing to do. The one solution that had worked for me before. “Norman, I’m sorry, but I’m seeing someone else.”
The coloring book slid out of his hands and whopped against the floor.
“Are you sure? Your mom told my mom that you weren’t dating anyone.”
“I thin. . .
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