Life is looking rosy for Florrie Fox, manager of the Color Me Read bookstore in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. She's working on an adult coloring book of gardens, her romance with Sergeant Eric Jonquille has entered a new chapter, and the bookstore's weekly coloring club is a source of friendship and entertainment.
No member is more vibrant than Dolly Cavanaugh. Dolly likes to say she was blessed with beauty and cursed with lousy husbands, but at least she has a grown daughter and a stunning brownstone to show for it!
When Dolly's love of garage sales results in her showing up at Color Me Read with a rare book in hand, Florrie is astounded. The Florist, the earliest known coloring book, was first published in 1760. An original copy would be worth a fortune — and someone else knows it. That same evening, Florrie finds Dolly dead on the floor of her apartment, a corner of a coloring book page clutched in her hand.
As Florrie delves into Dolly's past and her personal effects, she discovers a skeleton in the closet — literally — and a whole lot of shady suspects. One of them is an expert in the fine art of murder, but can Florrie draw the right conclusion?
Release date: November 27, 2018
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 304
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The Coloring Crook
I bristled at the thought. I looked across the tables of yard sale items to see the nitwit who had said that. As the manager of a bookstore, I was horrified. I wished I were the kind of person who could give a stranger a piece of my mind. I’d love to tell him what I thought.
He was slender and medium height. Not particularly athletic. He wore his hair short in tight mocha curls. And every garment he wore was emblazoned with a designer label. He looked like a walking billboard.
He’d said it to a woman in a chic suit. Her hair was the color of peanuts, styled in short waves that were intentionally messy. She wasn’t wearing much makeup. It was eight thirty in the morning, and her weary eyes suggested she hadn’t been sleeping well. She wore a Bluetooth earpieces in her ear and said angrily, “How is it possible to lose a shipment that’s only going from Washington, DC, to New York City? I could have driven it there myself in four hours.”
Even though I knew she was talking to someone on her phone, she looked like she was speaking to invisible people.
She turned her attention to the man in front of her. “Okay, go.”
He fingered his sparse mustache for a silent moment. “Oh! You’re talking to me now. Ms. Dumont, all children think their parents have a treasure that will fetch millions at auction. They never do. I have handled a lot of these estate sales and I promise you, everyone has the same worthless junk. No one wants old furniture, china, crystal, silver, or tchotchkes, and they especially don’t want ancient books. They’re impossible to move. Tastes have changed.”
The woman to whom he spoke appeared as horrified as I felt. The name Dumont rang a bell with me. Color Me Read, the bookstore I managed, was hosting a reading by the author of From Fame to Infamy: The Dumont Family Curse.
“Some of these books are probably out of print,” she said. “There may even be first editions.”
“If they’re out of print it’s for a reason—no one wants them. Besides, everything is on the Internet these days. If it’s worth reading, you can find it there, usually for free.”
He was really annoying me. I shuddered as I imagined how cold his apartment must look devoid of books.
“Mr. McAllister, I hired you to take care of this so I would not have to. The last thing I need from you is lectures. The books are for sale. And for your information, this is my grandparents’ estate, not my parents’.”
McAllister snickered. “I hope you have a van to remove the books after the sale is over. I don’t deliver. What’s left will go into the trash.” He strode away.
Ms. Dumont squinted at his back as though she were sending evil thoughts in his direction. I got the feeling she wasn’t used to being spoken to in that manner. Looking straight at me, she demanded, “Who recommended McAllister? He’s a complete jerk.”
I hoped she was speaking into her phone again.
I looked around for McAllister. Oh no! He had zeroed in on my sister, Veronica, a long-legged blonde who attracted the wrong men.
Veronica and I were opposites. She was gregarious, blond, and athletic. I barely hit five feet, two inches, had long chestnut hair, and preferred reading and drawing to bars and nightlife.
No, no, no. Veronica could not get involved with a man who thought books were trash. I hurried over to her. Too late. He was introducing himself.
My sister tilted her head coyly. “Veronica Fox.”
He grinned. “I didn’t expect to have a fox shopping here today.”
Ugh. I cringed. There wasn’t a thing I liked about him. Just then, I heard a woman call my name. “Florrie! Over here, darling.”
I turned. Not too far away in the alley, Dolly Cavanaugh and Zsazsa Rosca waved at me and beckoned me over.
Dolly had been the first person to sign up for the Hues, Brews, and Clues coloring club at Color Me Read. In her early sixties, she was on the chubby side, but looked great. Not a single gray hair dared to invade her golden-brown tresses. Like a lot of Southern women, she wore a good bit of foundation that covered any blemishes. Her plumpness filled out wrinkles that might have lined her round face. She had taken great care with her eye makeup and wore a thick streak of perfectly applied liquid eyeliner on her upper eyelids in the latest fashion. Azalea-pink lipstick brightened her face. Dolly had told Veronica and me about the yard sale not far from the bookstore in the Georgetown section of Washington, DC. She had cautioned us to be there early on Saturday morning because all the best items would be gone by noon.
Zsazsa Rosca and Dolly had met at the coloring club and quickly become fast friends. One of my favorite regulars at the store, Zsazsa was a retired professor of art history. Named after the famous Hungarian actress, Zsazsa was as round as Dolly, but had confessed to me that to avoid jiggles she wore Spanx so tight she had to lie on her bed to pull them on. She wore dramatic eye makeup with black liner swooping at the outer edges of her eyes much like Dolly. I could pick Zsazsa out in a crowd in a second, thanks to her blazing tangerine hair.
They stood at a table laden with tchotchkes. The assortment of objects accumulated during someone’s life was now being offered up in a yard sale for next to nothing. Zsazsa whispered, “Did you see the old Pyrex bowls at the next table over? They’re highly collectible!”
Dolly added, “Look for the ones in the best condition and snap them up before someone else realizes what they’re worth. You can sell them online for a nice little profit.”
“Thanks for the tip. First I need to get rid of that guy who has latched on to Veronica.”
Dolly gazed around. “Percy McAllister? The bane of my existence and yet a gift of good fortune. Don’t antagonize him.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “He’s a dolt who wouldn’t know a valuable collectible if it fell on his head. He runs the best sales because he has no clue as to the real value of anything. Nevertheless we should rescue Veronica. Take it from me. I had four lousy husbands. Now that I’m older and wiser, I know trouble when I see it.”
Without another word, Dolly hustled over to Veronica. “Sweetheart! I’ve found something you simply must buy. Excuse us, Percy.” Dolly looped her arm through Veronica’s and practically pulled her away from Percy. I couldn’t help smirking. She was doing what I would have liked to do. But I wouldn’t have been successful at it. Somehow, it was difficult to say no to Dolly.
Dolly steered Veronica toward a table of figurines. I wound my way through the tables to join them.
“Can you pick out the most valuable item on this table?” asked Dolly.
Veronica and I stared at a collection of Hummel figurines, Staffordshire jugs, and assorted bric-a-brac.
“This one,” said Veronica with confidence, pointing to a Staffordshire jug.
“Very nice. A good pick, Veronica. Highly collectible. You could sell it for at least forty dollars more than Percy is asking.”
Veronica beamed. “I like this! Shopping that will earn money. Two of my favorite things.”
“Unfortunately, dear, it is the incorrect answer. Stick with me, darlings, and you will learn.” Dolly picked up an eight-inch-tall statuette. It was coral-colored and had an Asian look to it. Dolly shook her head and tsked. “Two dollars. You would think Percy would know better. This is carved coral. Five scholars are playing with a dragon. It’s worth at least a thousand, maybe more.”
Veronica’s wide eyes met mine. “Are you going to buy it?”
Dolly smiled and held it out to Veronica. “A gift to you. You buy it. Keep it on a shelf or sell it on eBay and treat yourself to something special.”
“Dolly, we can’t take that,” I said. “You should buy it.”
“You girls enjoy it. Didn’t I tell you this would be fun?” Dolly winked at me. “I’m off to peruse the books. Maury Dumont was an ambassador who traveled the world. You never know what you might find. You girls should take a look at the furniture, too. Maury’s wife had an eye for good pieces. I know they’re not trendy, but those pieces are solid wood that will last your lifetimes and beyond, not sawdust pressed with adhesive that will fall apart. If you don’t like the dark color, you can paint it.”
She bustled off. I watched as she pawed through the boxes of books. It was sad to see Mr. Dumont’s possessions strewn on tables outside of his house. They represented his life and now all those little pieces were being discarded like last week’s leftovers. I felt like a vulture.
I gazed up at his home, shocked to see someone, probably Ms. Dumont, peering down at us from the semicircular window at the top of the house. There was no reason to imagine anything sinister, but the brownstone with the eyebrow window that extended beyond the roof was an ominous presence on the street of elegant historical homes.
“Creepy, isn’t it?” Veronica tilted her head up to stare at the towering building. “It’s probably worth a fortune but you couldn’t pay me to live here.”
“Did you see the face in the top window?” I asked.
Veronica shuddered. “Eww. No!”
I checked my watch. “I’m going to Color Me Read. See you later.”
On my way, I paused briefly at a bakery to buy a package of pecan honey buns. They were so fresh the pastry box warmed my hands as I carried it.
The bookstore was only five blocks away, located on a busy street. An ideal location, actually. An awning hung over the front of the building, and show windows on both sides of the front door displayed books. I unlocked the door, flipped the closed sign to open, punched in the alarm code, and deposited the honey buns by the coffeemaker. After starting the coffee, I flicked on lights as I walked through the store. The building had been someone’s home once. The parlor with a lovely fireplace was furnished with comfortable couches and chairs where customers could pause and relax. The owner made sure we carried a good selection of international newspapers to draw in the diplomatic community. Even though many of them were available online, a surprising number of people preferred the paper editions.
Coloring books were located on a back wall of the parlor. I was proud that my adult coloring books were featured among them. While I managed the bookstore by day, I drew adult coloring books at night. I straightened our selection a little bit.
At the moment I was working on a book about gardens and flowers. I was thinking of calling it Color My Garden. It was the middle of the summer, so I was spending my spare time in beautiful gardens around the city. I was far from a botanist, but I was learning about the parts of plants as I sketched them for the book.
I turned on classical music at a very low volume, and opened the box of honey buns.
I carried a mug of coffee and a honey bun up to the third floor to my boss, John Maxwell. He hailed from a wealthy family that was well-known in Washington, DC. Once a professor, he now spent his days pondering the mysteries of the planet and often went on adventures in search of famous objects that had been lost. One of my favorite things about working in his bookstore was eavesdropping on conversations between the professor and his intellectual friends who dropped by.
The colors of Professor Maxwell’s hair always fascinated me. His neatly trimmed beard and mustache were white as snow. But toward his ears they morphed to pepper, only to change back to snow again. Yet the top of his head was solid pepper. He wore the lines of age in his face with grace. Altogether, he was still a handsome man. He was also the most fascinating person I knew, with interests that varied from the location of the Holy Grail to aliens from outer space and whether Hitler actually died in his bunker.
While he was brilliant, he loathed confrontations. And he had the most peculiar habit of being oblivious about the time of day, which was something I couldn’t comprehend. I was a stickler for being on time and couldn’t resist collecting clocks that I found interesting.
He sat at his desk, holding a section of the newspaper in his hand. “Florrie, my dear! Thank you.” He eagerly accepted the coffee and drained it by half. “Look at this.”
He handed me the newspaper. It was folded to a tiny article that most people wouldn’t even notice. The headline read “Orso Released.”
Professor Maxwell grimaced. “Over two decades ago, Orso Moschello drove a van that was picking up priceless items to be delivered to a local museum.”
“Like an armored truck?”
“Quite the opposite. He was a trusted man who understood the value of antiquities. The belief is that it’s far safer to transport such items in a regular vehicle that doesn’t call attention to itself.” Professor Maxwell grinned at me. “Every day there are vehicles passing this bookstore that contain amazing things. But only a handful of people know that the driver isn’t just an ordinary fellow off to work. There are priceless and sometimes even dangerous items hitching a ride. For instance, if I had a couple of gold bars to be delivered to the bank, I might ask you to drive them over because no one would think a thing about it.”
“You’re not sending me anywhere with bars of gold are you?”
He laughed. “Not today. Anyway, after the precious cargo was received and unpacked, it was discovered that four items had gone missing. Among them was a small sunflower painting by van Gogh that my father was lending to a museum for an exhibit. It has never been found. Everyone hoped Orso would tell us what he did with the stolen goods but he kept his mouth shut.”
“It was insured, wasn’t it?”
The professor became grim. “Human error. The museum was supposed to insure it during transit, but the gentleman who should have signed the insurance document was out with the flu, so it was never processed. As you might imagine, there was a big legal fuss. The museum paid a token amount with the caveat that should the items be found, they would be returned to their rightful owners.”
“Which would be you. You’re hoping this Orso fellow will talk now?” I asked doubtfully.
“He has served his time. If he were a good man, he would reveal the whereabouts of the items. Of course, if he were a good man, he wouldn’t have stolen them to begin with.”
Uh-oh. If I knew the professor as well as I thought, he would embark on a search of his own. “So what are you going to do?”
He took the newspaper from me and slapped it on the desk a few times. “That is what I have been contemplating this morning. What would you do if you had been released from prison?”
I thought for a moment and understood where he was going with that question. “I guess I wouldn’t have any money, so I would collect the goods from where I stashed them and sell them.”
“Precisely. After all those years in the slammer, he probably doesn’t have any funds. Not to mention the difficulty of getting a job. He’ll be headed wherever he hid them.”
“Please don’t tell me you intend to follow him.”
“No, my dear. I intend to wait until he offers them up for sale. A pity really. The sale of stolen goods will land him back in prison.”
I left him contemplating the life and fate of a thief and hurried down the stairs.
Veronica walked in, beating the first customers by two minutes, and the store began to get busy.
An hour later the buzzer at the back door sounded. Probably a book delivery on the alley side of the store. I trotted down the stairs, unlocked the door, and opened it.
A man I didn’t know fell partly inside the bookstore and lay crumpled on the ground. Streaks of blood ran down his face.
I glanced around quickly. There was no one in sight. The alley was calm. Not even a cat slinked by.
He looked to be about thirty years old. I kneeled on the floor. “Are you okay?”
It was a stupid question. The blood on his face was clear proof that he needed help.
He was on his elbow, struggling to rise. Reaching his hand out to me, he asked, “Could you help me up?”
“Of course.” I said it with confidence that I didn’t feel. But I wanted to assist him. I scurried to his other side. “Sling your arm around my neck.”
He complied quickly. Between pushing off the ground with his right hand and holding on to me with his left, he was able to stand. “Do you see anyone?” he asked.
I assumed he was worried about the person who had attacked him. As we shuffled inside the store, I glanced around again. “Nope. All quiet back here.”
He moved faster than I had expected. I wondered if fear of someone was motivating him. In minutes we were inside and the door was closed. I took care to lock it in case the person who clobbered him came back.
He sagged a little bit. Breathing heavily, he leaned against the door. “Thanks.”
I fetched a chair. He perched on the edge as though he thought he might have to flee.
“Do you think you can walk up the stairs?” I asked.
“This is a bookstore. You’d be more comfortable there while we wait for 911.”
“You don’t have to go to that trouble. I’ll be fine.”
Maybe he didn’t know he was bleeding. He needed medical help. “Rest here. I’ll be right back.”
He grabbed my hand. “No 911. Please don’t make a fuss. I just need a few minutes to catch my breath and then I’ll be on my way.”
I bent toward him. In the gentlest voice I could muster, I said, “You appear to have a head injury. I think you’d better have someone look at it.”
His brown eyes met mine and he reached up to touch his head. He lowered his hand and viewed the blood on his fingers. Unlike me, who would have been upset, he didn’t even wince. He said calmly, “I’ll get checked out by my doctor. Thank you for your concern.”
“Head injuries can be serious.”
He smiled at me. “I’ll be okay. Maybe you could get me a wet paper towel? I don’t want to scare people.”
“I’ll be right back.”
“Uh . . . I don’t know your name.”
“Florrie. Florrie Fox.”
“Jack Miller. Florrie, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention my presence to anyone else.”
I studied him for a long moment. He dressed like a preppy in a blue button-down shirt and khakis. Brown hair the color of chestnuts waved in a well-behaved manner. His lips were thin and serious, but there was a spark of humor and kindness in his eyes. I didn’t know what was going on with him, but he appeared to be thinking clearly.
Still, I hesitated to promise anything of the sort. I dodged his request. “I’ll just get some hydrogen peroxide.”
I dashed up the stairs and could hear Veronica at the front desk. I recognized the voice of a customer asking for the book he had ordered on seventeenth-century witch trials in Norway.
In haste, I grabbed paper towels and hydrogen peroxide. I carried them down the stairs guardedly, half expecting that he might not be there.
Jack had cracked the door and was peering outside. At the sound of my footsteps, he glanced back at me with wary eyes.
He closed the door, flipped the bolt, and sat down. “Thanks for helping me, Florrie.”
“So what happened to you?” I dabbed at the blood on his face and worked my way back toward his wound.
“I’m not quite sure. I’m still trying to figure that out.”
I looked into his eyes. “Someone clobbered you, but you don’t know why?”
He smiled. “I realize that must sound strange, but I’m a little confused about it.”
His primary injury was near the top of his head, well hidden by his thick hair. I saturated a paper towel with hydrogen peroxide and pressed it against the wound.
Jack squeezed his fingers into a fist but didn’t complain.
“I’m putting some pressure on this to try to stop the bleeding,” I said. “And if I were you, I’d stay away from that guy.”
“That’s exactly what I intend to do.” Jack tilted his face up at me and grinned. “I don’t mean to sound unappreciative, but are we done?”
I lifted the paper towel. “Your head is still bleeding. I don’t know where you’re off to, but you have blood on your shirt and khakis.”
“Guess I’d better go home and change. Thanks, Florrie. I owe you one.”
I grinned. “I’m hoping I won’t ever be in the same situation. Stop by sometime and let me know how you’re doing. Okay?”
He flashed me a thumbs-up and opened the door two inches wide. He stood quietly, as if he was d. . .
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