“Johnson offers readers humor, heart, and unexpected plot twists, painting a portrait of a California beach town peopled with endearing characters. With a smart, sympathetic protagonist, lots of colorful details, and even tips on creating trompe l’oeil paintings, A Palette for Murder is a work of art.” – Ellen Byron, USA Today Bestselling Author of Plantation Shudders
A killer heat wave settles over Seagull Lane...
Summer’s sizzling in Vista Beach, the home of computer programmer and tole-painting enthusiast Aurora (Rory) Anderson. The abnormally high temperatures are hard on everyone in the quiet Los Angeles county beach community, especially the city’s homeless population. Residents are doing everything they can to stay cool, including leaving windows open to catch the faintest breeze. Not the best idea when a string of burglaries is plaguing nearby towns.
Still, Rory doesn’t expect to find her neighbor’s body just a few doors down. When suspicion falls on a friend and fellow painter, Rory must discover the truth before the police paint the wrong picture and send her friend away permanently.
“Johnson has crafted a clever mystery with a colorful protagonist. Set along the vibrant Southern California coast, this story resonates with a rich understanding of the artistic as well as the homeless communities. A smooth read!” – Daryl Wood Gerber, National Bestselling Author of the Cookbook Nook Mysteries
“Aurora Anderson and her friends are back with a brand new mystery to solve. A Palette for Murder is a well-crafted tale of betrayal, revenge, and the power of family ties, set in a Southern California beach town.” – Maggie King, Author of the Hazel Rose Book Group Series
“Johnson paints characters with a folksy charm that makes them feel like family…Color me a fan!” – Diane Vallere, National Bestselling Author of The Decorator Who Knew Too Much
Related subjects include: cozy mysteries, women sleuths, murder mystery series, whodunit mysteries (whodunnit), amateur sleuth books, book club recommendations, craft and hobby mysteries.
Books in the Aurora Anderson Mystery Series:
FATAL BRUSHSTROKE (#1)
PAINT THE TOWN DEAD (#2)
A PALETTE FOR MURDER (#3)
Part of the Henery Press Mystery Series Collection, if you like one, you'll probably like them all...
Author Bio: Sybil Johnson’s love affair with reading began in kindergarten with “The Three Little Pigs.” Visits to the library introduced her to Encyclopedia Brown, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and a host of other characters. Fast forward to college where she continued reading while studying Computer Science. After a rewarding career in the computer industry, Sybil decided to try her hand at writing mysteries. Her short fiction has appeared in Mysterical-E and Spinetingler Magazine, among others. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, she now lives in Southern California where she enjoys tole painting, studying ancient languages and spending time with friends and family.
Read an Excerpt
The sun beat down mercilessly on the residents of the quiet Los Angeles County city of Vista Beach, in the grips of an August heat wave that showed no signs of cooling off.
Rory Anderson closed her eyes and sighed contentedly as cool air washed over her head. Just a few more seconds, she told herself, and she would be ready to get back to work.
"What are you doing?" a voice behind her said.
Rory took her head out of the freezer compartment of the side-by-side refrigerator and turned to face the back door, where Liz Dexter peered through the screen into the kitchen of the single-story stucco house.
Rory unhooked the latch on the screen door and ushered her best friend inside. "It's hot, and I'm desperate. I can only shed so many clothes. Go on, try it yourself."
Clad in shorts and a tank top, the petite woman gingerly poked her head in the freezer. A smile slowly spread across her face. "Wow. That is nice."
"Too bad it's not a walk-in." Rory glanced at the thermometer on the wall. Eleven thirty and already eighty-five inside. When it was this hot, her brain refused to function. She didn't envision getting any more programming done right now. The final tweaks to her conferencing software would have to wait until right before the test run that evening. "I wish it would cool down. I can't work in this heat. Not even an ocean breeze to cool off the house in two whole weeks. I'm almost at the point of installing central air."
"You'd be better off buying more fans or one of those portable units if you can find them. All the air conditioning companies in the area are booked solid. A lot of Vista Beach Realty's clients are on waiting lists, including two of mine. By the time they get around to you, the temperature will have dropped and you won't need it anymore."
"It's times like this I wish I had an air-conditioned office to go to instead of working at home."
"I'm practically living at mine these days." Liz closed the freezer door. As she walked toward the kitchen table, her foot brushed against a small trash bag leaning against the legs of a chair. Empty soda cans spilled out onto the tile floor. She bent down and stuffed them back into the bag. "Looks like you have recycling to take in. Or are these for that homeless friend of yours, the one who hangs out near the pier? What's his name?"
"Kit. It's about time for me to head downtown to give them to him. I promised I'd drop them by today." Rory crinkled her face in worry. "I hope he's doing okay in this heat. He seemed fine when I saw him three days ago, but it's so hot in the sun."
"We can check on him on our way to the mall."
Rory blinked several times and stared blankly at her friend. "The mall?"
Liz put her hands on her hips. "Did you forget about shopping for a new outfit? We're still on for tomorrow night, right?" Her eyes narrowed. "You're not going to chicken out on me, are you?"
"Don't worry, I'll go out with this mystery man you've set me up with." Rory glanced at the thermometer once again. The temperature had risen an entire degree in the short time they'd been talking. "It's ridiculously hot in here. Let's go. We can grab some lunch while we're out." Leaving the fan in the front room running and the windows in the back of the house open, Rory tucked her phone in the pocket of her khaki shorts and grabbed the bag full of cans before they headed out the door to her friend's car.
A block from the beach, Liz turned into a city parking lot and pulled into a space overlooking the ocean. They fed the meter and joined the throng headed down the hill toward the pier. A family pedaled by on the street beside them toward the bike path that ran along the beach, parents on a tandem followed by three helmeted kids on individual bikes.
A head taller than her friend, Rory walked beside Liz as they looked both ways and crossed the path at the base of the pier before stopping to take in the scene before them. Trash bag filled with empty soda cans in one hand, Rory brushed beads of sweat off her face with the other as her gaze swept the area from the benches that lined the length of the pier, facing out toward the beach and ocean, to the nearby cafe that served drinks and snacks. Two people stood in line waiting to place their orders. All of the plastic chairs at the tables that surrounded the hut were filled with customers, none of them the man she was looking for.
"I don't see him. Now I'm really worried. He's always here on Friday. He hangs out on a bench on the pier. That one right there." Rory pointed to the concrete bench closest to them now occupied by a middle-aged couple watching a volleyball game in progress on the beach below.
"He could be working. He picks up odd jobs now and then, doesn't he?"
"He said he would be here. He always keeps his word."
"Maybe it got too hot for him and he moved indoors. Isn't there a cooling center near here?"
"I forgot about that. Let's check it out."
The two walked the short distance to the community center where two rooms had been reserved as a place where residents could escape the abnormally high temperatures and spend the day in an air-conditioned space. They entered the emergency cooling center, poked their heads inside one of the rooms, and scanned the tables and chairs scattered around the area, looking for Kit.
"Granny G's here." Liz nodded toward a table on the far side where Rory's seventy-five-year-old neighbor sat with three other gray-haired women, playing cards. "I guess she doesn't have air conditioning at her place either."
Mrs. Griswold looked up from the cards in her hands and waved at the two of them. Rory waved back. "I don't think anyone on my block does. It's not very common." She made a second pass over the tables and chairs in case she'd missed Kit the first time. "He's not here."
After looking in the other room, they walked to the nearby library where the homeless man often hung out. When they couldn't find him there either, they headed back to the beach. They were almost at the pier when frenzied barking reached their ears.
"That bark sounds familiar. I think it's Buddy, Kit's dog. Sounds like he's on the beach. That's weird. Kit knows dogs aren't allowed on the sand. He never takes Buddy there." With long strides, Rory hurried toward the steep flight of stairs that led from street level down to the sand, forcing Liz to jog to keep up.
From the top of the steps, Rory stared down at the crowded beach where a golden retriever, leash trailing behind, was running back and forth between the water and a group of sun worshippers lying on beach towels. As she watched, a man dressed in a white polo shirt and red swim trunks hurried over and tried to grab the leash, but the dog evaded him, growling when the lifeguard got within three feet.
Rory and Liz ran down the stairs, kicking off their flip-flops at the bottom, and headed toward Buddy and the man. Rory's feet burned as she walked as fast as she could across the scorching sand, heels sinking in with every step, making progress slow. Halfway to the water's edge, she called out the dog's name.
As soon as the retriever heard her voice, he stopped barking and ran toward her.
"This dog yours?" the lifeguard said when she was within earshot.
"He belongs to a friend. I'm worried about him. If Buddy's here, he must be close by." Rory bent down and addressed the dog. "Where's Kit, Buddy? Is he in trouble? Show me."
Seeming to understand, the dog raced toward the water, leading them to the shady area underneath the pier. As they followed, making faster progress once they reached the packed sand, Rory spotted a bicycle leaning against one of the rough concrete posts that supported the pier. White plastic bags full of belongings dangled from every available space on the bike, obstructing her view of the area in front of the post. As she got closer, she spotted bare legs on the sand.
The three of them hurried forward and found a man with a closely cropped beard wearing shorts and a t-shirt sitting against a post, his sandal-clad legs extended out in front of him, waves lapping onto the nearby shore. A sizable lump on his head and a gash on his forearm, he didn't respond when Rory called out to him. With his nose, Buddy nudged his companion's right arm.
While Rory and Liz stood nearby, concerned looks on their faces, the lifeguard knelt down next to Kit, placing his hand on the other man's arm.
"Sir, can you hear me? Are you all right? Can you tell me what happened?"
At the lifeguard's touch, Kit batted his hands as if he thought he was being attacked. Rory released her hold on the trash bag filled with cans and dropped down onto her knees on the sand on the other side of him, next to the dog. She held Kit's flailing arms until he quieted down.
In her gentlest voice, she said, "It's me, Rory. We won't hurt you. We're here to help. Can you tell us what happened? Who did this to you?"
With his last bit of energy, Kit mumbled something, but even when she put her ear close to his lips, all she could make out was "Zoe" followed by a long pause and "find." Then he slumped down and closed his eyes.
Unable to get any further response out of Kit, the lifeguard borrowed Rory's cell phone to call for help, then directed Liz to wait near the steps down to the beach for the ambulance to guide the paramedics to the spot underneath the pier.
"Help will be here soon, but we need to cool him down now," the lifeguard said to Rory.
Under his direction, she borrowed towels from nearby sunbathers and dipped them in the ocean water. She'd barely placed them on Kit's overheated body when a bright yellow truck with the word "Lifeguard" written on the side in red lettering drove across the sand and stopped halfway between the water and the steps. Its two occupants leapt out and, after consulting with their colleague, cleared a path from the stairs to the water's edge, holding back the group of curious onlookers who had gathered on the sand. People leaned over the railing on the pier and stared down at the commotion on the beach below them.
An ambulance screeched to a halt in the parking lot at the base of the pier moments later, and Liz led the EMTs to Kit. Before long, the man was strapped to a board in the back of the truck and driven across the sand to the base of the steps. Between the paramedics and lifeguards, they hauled him up the steep stairs to the waiting ambulance. A uniformed police officer spoke briefly to the two groups before Kit was whisked away.
Buddy tried to follow, but Rory held tightly onto his leash and spoke soothingly to the retriever.
The uniformed officer headed across the sand toward Rory and Liz. After introductions had been made, Officer Carr said, "Are you the ones who found him?"
Rory nodded. "How is he? What did the paramedics say?"
"Did someone hit him?" Liz asked.
"Looks like he was in a fight, all right. He has a pretty nasty bump on his head. I'd say it happened fairly recently. Plus he's dehydrated." The officer looked sympathetically at the two women. "Don't worry, your friend's in good hands," he said in a reassuring voice. "They'll do everything they can for him. What can you tell me about him? We didn't find any ID in his pockets."
"I don't know his full name," Rory said. "Everyone calls him Kit. He never wanted to talk about his past, and I didn't want to pry."
Carr made a notation in his notebook. "How did you two meet?"
"He pushed me out of the way of a car that ran a red light and almost hit me. That was about a month and a half ago." Rory shuddered when she thought back to the SUV that had come within inches of mowing her down in the middle of a crosswalk. "We started talking afterward. I've seen him at least once a week since."
The officer whistled. "Lots of distracted drivers out there. I see it all the time. Sounds like you were lucky he was around."
"I know." If it hadn't been for the homeless man's quick action, she would have landed in the hospital or worse.
He looked over at Liz who was standing nearby, petting Buddy. "What about you, ma'am? Do you know anything about this Kit?"
"Wish I knew something that would help. I've seen him around town, but I've only exchanged a few words with him."
"Did you two see anyone nearby when you found him? Maybe someone talking to him or walking away?"
Rory thought back to the discovery, mentally retracing her steps from the stairs down to the beach across the sand to the water's edge. "Not really. Just the lifeguard and those guys." She nodded toward the beachgoers ten yards away who had now returned to their sunbathing. "The dog was barking and the lifeguard was trying to grab his leash, but no one was anywhere near Kit." She glanced at the beach in the opposite direction. "Not that I could see, anyway. From where I was standing, though, I couldn't see the other side of the pier. Whoever hit him could have walked under the pier across the sand on the north side and blended in with the crowd."
"Was he conscious when you found him? Did he say anything to you?"
"Barely. He mumbled a name. Zoe, I think. There were a couple words before that, but I couldn't make them out. I could hardly hear him. I might be mistaken about the name."
Officer Carr kept taking notes.
"Do either of you have any idea who this Zoe is? A relative, maybe?"
Rory and Liz both said no.
"What about his phone?" Rory said. "Was it in his pocket? Maybe her number's in it."
"Or at least emergency contact info," Liz said.
"He has a cell phone?"
"I've seen him use one. An old flip-phone model."
"We didn't find anything on him. This his stuff?" He nodded to the bicycle leaning against the post. "Maybe his wallet and the phone are in there."
Rory handed Buddy's leash to Liz, who kept the dog occupied while the other two searched Kit's belongings. Neither of the items they were looking for were in any of the bags. The only thing of interest Rory found was a picture of a clean-shaven younger version of Kit with a woman about his age. From the pose, Rory suspected she was his girlfriend or wife. She turned it over. "Me and Zoe" was written in a scrawl across the back. "This is the name he mentioned. At least now we have a face to go with it." She handed the photo to the officer.
"Do either of you recognize her?"
They shook their heads.
"I'll take this, ask around. Someone might know something." He ran his hand through his hair. "Poor guy. I always feel sorry for anyone who lives on the streets. It might be warm and relatively safe here at the beach, but it's not like having a comfy bed to go home to every night."
"Before you leave, can we take a photo of it? We can ask around ourselves, see if anyone recognizes her. She might know about Kit's medical history. I couldn't tell the paramedics anything when they asked," Rory said.
"Good idea." The officer held the photo while they took a picture of it with their smart phones. "Does the dog belong to him? Do you want me to call animal control? They'll put him in a shelter until Kit gets better."
Rory and Liz exchanged glances.
"That's okay," Rory finally said. "We'll take care of him."
"That's fine, but remember, dogs aren't allowed on the beach. Better take him somewhere before someone complains. You know where the animal shelter is, right? I don't want to see him running around town."
Rory nodded. "Don't worry. We'll make sure he has a home. What are you going to do now?"
"We'll do our best to catch the son of ... um ... the person who hit him. Let me know if you remember anything that can help. Thanks for your time, ladies. If I need anything else, I know where to find you." Officer Carr headed toward the group sunbathing nearby and began questioning them.
Rory knelt down on the sand, wrapped her arms around the golden retriever's neck, and placed the side of her face against his. "Don't worry, Buddy," she said softly. "Everything will be okay. Your pal is in good hands."CHAPTER 2
"What are we going to do with him?" Liz nodded toward Buddy. "You're not really planning on taking him to the animal shelter, are you?" she said, the horror unmistakable in her voice.
Rory buried her face in the retriever's fur before standing up. "I don't like the idea of his going to the pound any more than you do. We need to find him a temporary home. I could take him, but I'm worried he won't be happy with me. He's used to constant companionship."
"And I've got a condo that doesn't allow dogs." Liz tapped her chin. After a moment of thought, her face brightened. "I've got it! I just sold a house with a big backyard to a client. Double lot in the eastern part of town. I hear they're looking for a second dog. Buddy will need someone to play with." She handed the leash to Rory so she could make the call.
"Make sure they know it's only temporary."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Palette For Murder"
Copyright © 2017 Sybil Johnson.
Excerpted by permission of Henery Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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