There's a killer in the picture . . .
Celeste Cabot has a flair for painting—and a touch of paranormal talent too. She's just arrived to sell her artwork at a big craft fair in North Carolina, complete with rides, games, and deep-fried everything. But the sunny landscape takes on a darker hue when her Chihuahua, Van Gogh, leads her to the riverbank—and to a body that was definitely not part of her design.
With help from a handsome fellow artist, Celeste sets out to draw the brazen killer onto her canvas. She'll need to balance the victim's past, a suspected love triangle, and a long-ago accident—and also consult with a medium and a spirit—to try to paint a murderous fiend into a corner . . .
Release date: April 28, 2020
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 213
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Murder Can Confuse Your Chihuahua
How would I escape this? I was trapped with no idea how to get out. Where was help when I needed it? My heart rate spiked while my body trembled. With shaky hands, I gripped the steering wheel of my 1947 pink Ford F-100 truck. I punched the gas pedal, hoping to flee before anyone noticed. Unfortunately, the wheels spun, but the truck, with my pink and white Shasta trailer attached to the back, went nowhere. As I gunned the engine, I wondered if I’d cause irreversible damage.
Vincent van Gogh, my tiny white Chihuahua, sat on the seat next to me. He barked as if telling me I was doing this all wrong.
“I know, Van, but what else can I do?” I pressed my foot on the pedal again.
Obviously, I’d named Van after the famed artist. It wasn’t entirely because of my love of art either. I’d rescued the Chihuahua from the shelter a year ago, and his one floppy ear had inspired the name. We’d been best friends ever since. Van was opinionated, though, and always let me know when I wasn’t doing something to his satisfaction.
Bearing down on the accelerator again resulted in the same outcome. What else was I supposed to do? A tow truck seemed like my only option. I’d been so close to arriving at my destination, only to be stopped a short distance away. The spot where I’d set up my booth for the craft fair came into view. This was more than a little embarrassing. Other vendors had taken notice that I was stuck in the mud. They stared instead of offering to help.
“I guess I should give up, huh, Van?”
I glanced in the rearview mirror and caught a glimpse of my reflection. This was not my best moment. My dark bangs stuck to my sweating forehead. Actually, my grandma said we didn’t sweat, we glistened. That sounded much more graceful. It didn’t help matters that the temperature around the Great Smoky Mountains was hot enough to fry an egg on the hood of my truck.
Late summer had settled around us. An early-morning thunderstorm had dissipated, and the sun was forcing its way out from behind the fading clouds. Unfortunately, the mud hadn’t dried up yet. Soon the weather would change, and the green leaves would burst with color. For now, we had to deal with the scorching heat.
My hometown of Gatlinburg was on the other side of the mountains. I was still close enough to home that my overprotective and slightly wacky family could keep tabs on me. I expected to see them pop up at any time. The mountains’ peaks blended in with the clouds in the distance. I was now in Cherokee, North Carolina, for the annual Farewell, Summer Arts and Craft Fair.
I’d attended the fair in the past, but only as a patron. It had been almost like a county fair, with rides, games, food trailers selling deep-fried everything, and, of course, the arts and crafts. On the final day of the fair, they held a farewell picnic with hot dogs, hamburgers, and fireworks—sending the summer away with a big bang.
Pounding on the window next to me made me jump. A loud shriek escaped my lips. Caleb Ward stood beside my truck door with a perplexed grimace on his face. His crystal-blue eyes widened. The color reminded me of the hue I used often for the sky in my paintings. His dark hair was in stark contrast to his pale eyes. I lowered the window.
“Need some help?” he asked with a slight hint of Southern drawl.
Now I really was mortified. I hated making mistakes like this. I liked it better when I seemed in control. This was definitely not in control.
“I guess I got stuck in the mud,” I said.
“Just a little.” He pinched his index finger and thumb together to showcase the amount.
Heat rushed to my cheeks. “This is embarrassing.”
“Nothing to be embarrassed about. Good morning, Van.” Caleb waved.
Van wagged his tail. Caleb had an adorable German shepherd named Gum Shoe. For that reason, Van had become partial to Caleb. Caleb and I had met recently at another craft fair. Not only was Caleb a talented wood sculptor, but he was also a detective with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Gum Shoe sat near Caleb patiently, waiting for me to get out of this predicament.
I’d rolled up to the craft fair with the best intentions. Selling my paintings was the goal. Plus, having fun with Van and enjoying the beautiful natural surroundings. Scenes like these always helped my muse. The fact that Caleb was here too made it even better. Now if I could only get out of this mess—literally—the day could continue as planned.
“You just need a little traction, that’s all,” Caleb said.
“How do we do that?” I asked.
“First put the truck in park. Next hand me the floor mat.”
I shifted the truck into park and opened the truck door. “Stay put, Van.”
After I handed Caleb the floor mat, he said, “Okay, I’m going to put this in front of the tire. When I say go, you drive forward.”
“Got it,” I said as I slipped back into the truck.
Van was occupied with barking at a cricket that had jumped onto the windshield. I watched in the mirror as Caleb placed the floor mat on the ground.
He stood up and motioned. “Okay, drive forward now.”
As I pushed on the gas, the truck and trailer broke free from the mud. I watched through the side mirror in horror as mud splattered all over Caleb’s white T-shirt and face. I bit my lip to keep from laughing. The last thing I wanted was for him to see me amused after he’d helped me out of my muddy entanglement. Once I stopped the truck, Caleb walked back to the driver’s side window.
I opened the truck’s door and got out. “I am so sorry.”
Caleb wiped the mud from his face with his hand. “They say mud is good for the complexion, right?”
Mud had made its way into his short hair. I held back the laughter until he let loose. The other vendors watched us as if we were bonkers. Caleb and I continued laughing.
I pulled an old paint rag from my truck and handed it to Caleb. “Thanks again for getting us out.”
Caleb swiped the towel across his face. “No problem. Do you need any help setting up?”
I took the dirty towel from his outstretched hand. “Thanks, but I think I’m good.”
“I’ll see you soon?” Caleb asked.
My stomach danced. “Yes, we’re a couple of booths from each other.”
“Guess I got lucky with that,” he said.
Fortunately, this time Caleb’s booth was close to mine. I blushed every time I thought of him. He wouldn’t be right next to me, but he would be just a few spaces down. That meant I would see him more often. I hadn’t met the people who would be on either side of me, but I hoped they were nice.
I gestured over my shoulder toward the truck. “Okay, I should get to work. See you soon.”
Caleb waved as I hopped into the truck and shifted into gear. Van released his high-pitched bark that sounded more like a cricket’s chirp.
“Yes, you’ll get to play with Gum Shoe later.”
Needless to say, the pink paint on my vehicles was now covered with mud. Yes, my trailer was pink and white, and I’d had my old truck painted pink too. Pink was my favorite color, although I loved all colors. Mostly I just wanted everyone to remember me, and standing out with the pink was certainly one way for that to happen. People would never forget my mobile pink art studio. My poor dirty truck and trailer. Now I’d have to wash them soon or everyone would think the color was beige.
I wondered if I hadn’t unknowingly selected pink as my signature color because I needed something cheerful. Sometimes the subject matter of my art wasn’t so cheery. I’d recently discovered hidden images within my work. Actually, someone else had discovered this by accident when they’d held a glass jar up to a painted canvas. That sounded crazy, but it had actually happened.
Within the paintings were images of skeletons. I had no idea that I’d painted them. The only time I discovered the figures was after the paintings were complete and I held a glass up to my eye for a view. Even though this was a bit spooky, one of the images had helped me solve a recent murder. It could have been a coincidence, but I had a tough time believing that.
I maneuvered my truck and trailer closer to the spot where I’d spend the next week. Most of the area was surrounded by a forest of tall trees. The sun created flickering shadows on the ground as it trickled around the leaves. An area in the middle had lush green grass and would be the spot for the vendors to sell their crafts.
After pulling my trailer up to the location, I shoved the gearshift into PARK. I had wasted almost an hour stuck in the mud, so now my setup time was limited. The craft fair would officially open for the day soon. My fingers were crossed that nothing else would go wrong at the weeklong event. There had been enough chaos at the last craft fair. I didn’t want that to spill over to this one.
As I got out of the truck with Van in my arms, he whined and squirmed. “Okay, you want to go for a quick walk? We can’t be long, though.”
The craft fair was being held at a church that had a large area of surrounding acres with the Oconaluftee River running along the edge of the property. They called it a river, but in this area, it appeared more like a creek. My excitement mounted when I thought about spending a week here surrounded by the lush green landscape, Oak, maple, and pine trees stood out against the bright blue late-summer sky. In the early morning before the fair began, I thought it would be great to take my easel down to the water and paint.
Van trotted along beside me as we headed down the meandering dirt path toward the river. Overgrown patches on either side of the trail gave me a creepy feeling that someone was watching us. Water droplets on the leaves from the earlier thunderstorm had almost dried up completely now. Van and I weaved around tall pines as the rays of sunshine trickled through the gaps in the trees. As I stepped over the fallen needles, they crunched under my feet. The pine scent encircled us.
I spotted the river up ahead as the sun sparkled off the water’s surface. Gravel in shades of gray and white made up the rocky shoreline. Small waves lapped at the water’s edge, with knobby driftwood nearby. Trees hemmed the flow of the water. The only sound came from the creak of the tall trees swaying with the wind, the drone of insects, and the gentle lap of the water against the shore.
“How beautiful, Van,” I said.
He barked, his four legs lifting off the ground with the motion.
“What is it, Van?” I asked as he tugged on the leash.
Obviously, he wanted me to see something. He dragged me closer to the water. I caught a glimpse of something on the ground up ahead. It was partially hidden behind one of the trees. As I grew near, I soon realized the legs on the ground were sticking out from behind the tree’s trunk. Someone wearing white tennis shoes was there.
“Oh my gosh, Van. Someone’s hurt.” I scooped him up and rushed toward the person.
As soon as I came upon the woman, I knew she was more than just hurt. She was dead.
“We have to get help right away, Van.”
I couldn’t believe this was happening. I ran away from the body, almost tripping over branches and pine cones as I tried to reach someone for help. Too bad I didn’t have my phone with me. I’d left it back at the trailer. I needed to take my phone with me all the time in case something terrible like this happened. But I’d thought we would be alone out there and things would be fine. I was wrong.
Every little noise captured my attention, and I kept glancing over my shoulder as I ran away from the river. It felt as if someone watched me and was chasing me. But I was sure that I was just paranoid because of what I’d discovered. I wasn’t sure what had happened to the woman, but it didn’t appear to be an accident. I hoped I was wrong.
Just as I came to the end of the path, a tall, dark-haired man popped out in front of me. I screamed. His dark eyes penetrated me. I just knew this was the killer. The woman had been murdered, and this man had done it.
“Are you all right?” the man asked in a creepy voice.
I tried to steady my breathing, but it seemed almost impossible. Why was he asking if I was okay? He probably knew that I’d discovered the woman. Of course, I wasn’t okay.
“There’s a woman in danger back there by the river. Actually, she’s more than in danger. I think she’s dead.” My voice shook, along with the rest of my body.
The man stared at me. “Is that right?”
“You don’t believe me?” I gestured for the man to get out of my way. “Excuse me, but I need to go get help.”
It had taken a lot of courage to stand up to that guy. At any second, he could have attacked me too. I moved around him and raced toward the area where the booths were set up. I had to get Caleb right away. As I neared the area, I spotted Caleb. I yelled out to him, and he made eye contact with me. He probably knew by the expression on my face that something was terribly wrong.
Caleb noticed Van in my arms as he ran toward me. “Is everything okay with Van?”
“He’s fine. There’s a woman by the river. I think she’s dead,” I said breathlessly,
Caleb stared at me as if what I’d said wasn’t computing.
After a few more seconds, he asked, “Can you show me where she is?”
“Follow me,” I said.
Caleb and I took off running toward the area. I hoped that it wasn’t too late for her, but I was almost positive that it was. We hit the dirt path again, and it felt as if it was an even longer trip to the river this time. Plus, the terrain seemed even rougher. Had more branches been knocked over since the last time I came down the path? They really needed to clear this out. Where had the man that I’d encountered on the path gone? He had acted so strangely that I worried he might be waiting for us.
When Caleb and I came to the river, I pointed to the tree. The woman’s legs were still visible from behind the trunk.
“There she is,” I said, trying to catch my breath.
I followed Caleb the rest of the way to the tree. We came to a halt when we reached the woman.
Caleb knelt down to check the woman. “She’s been dead for a while. Probably at least several hours.”
My stunned expression probably said it all, which was good because I was speechless right now. Caleb pulled out his phone and placed a call. I stepped away in the opposite direction. The strange man was nowhere around. Watching the flowing river instead of the dead woman, I listened to Caleb as he talked with the police.
When Caleb got off the phone, he asked, “Do you think you can go back and wait for the police to arrive?”
“Yeah, I can do that,” I said.
Actually, I was relieved to get out of there, although I hated leaving Caleb alone.
“Just be careful,” he said. “I need to stay here with the body.”
“There was one other thing,” I said before walking away.
“What’s that?” he asked with a frown.
“A man was on the path and popped out in front of me. He confronted me right after I found the body.”
Caleb’s brow pinched together, and he said, “What did the man say?”
“He asked me if I was all right. I told him about the body I’d found, but he just acted as if I’d told him that I was going for a stroll. It was very strange. After that I took off to find you. I didn’t wait for him to say anything else.”
“Did you see where he went?” Caleb asked.
“No, I didn’t, and I’d never seen him before.”
“Okay, just be careful, all right? Text me when you get up there,” he said.
“I will,” I said, moving away toward the path.
I raced back down the path toward the arts and craft area, hoping the entire time that I didn’t run into that man again. After all, he could be the killer. I just knew that the woman’s injuries weren’t consistent with an accident. Not with the way her neck was twisted.
When I reached the area, I went over to the spot where the police would park. As I stood there, it felt as if someone was staring at me. Glancing to my left, I spotted the man who had been on the path. Frantically, I typed out a text message to Caleb.
That strange man I saw on the path is close by. He is staring at me.
Just stay aw. . .
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