"Johnson paints characters with a folksy charm that makes them feel like family. But beware! This richly-textured mystery has it all: family secrets, professional competition, and judgments cast for past mistakes. Color me a fan!" - Diane Vallere, Author of the Material Witness, Style & Error, and Mad for Mod Mystery Series
Sub-Genre Keywords: Cozy Mysteries, Amateur Sleuth, Women Sleuths, Craft Mysteries
A dead body in her garden and a homicide detective on her doorstep...
Computer programmer and tole-painting enthusiast Aurora (Rory) Anderson doesn't envision finding either when she steps outside to investigate the frenzied yipping coming from her own backyard. After all, she lives in Vista Beach, a quiet California beach community where violent crime is rare and murder even rarer.
Suspicion falls on Rory when the body buried in her flowerbed turns out to be someone she knows-her tole painting teacher, Hester Bouquet. Just two weekends before, Rory attended one of Hester's weekend painting seminars, an unpleasant experience she vowed never to repeat. As evidence piles up against Rory, she embarks on a quest to identify the killer and clear her name. Can Rory unearth the truth before she encounters her own brush with death?
Praise for FATAL BRUSHSTROKE:
"Rory is definitely a quirky character; she has the ability to draw the readers in so that they want to follow her through her adventures. Which is a good thing, because this is the first in a brand new series featuring Rory Anderson, so there's even more fun to come." - Suspense Magazine
"Fans of crafty cozies will love this delightful new series that features tole painting enthusiast, Aurora "Rory" Anderson...In Fatal Brushstroke, Johnson has penned a charming mystery filled with colorful characters, clever plot twists and unexpected surprises that will keep you guessing whodunit right until the end. A rewarding read and a refreshing debut." -Hannah Dennison, Author of The Vicky Hill Mysteries and The Honeychurch Hall Mysteries
"Traditional mystery readers will love this debut author, Sybil Johnson, and her amateur sleuth, Aurora "Rory" Anderson, a Southern California woman who has survived her share of tragedy in the fictitious seaside community of Vista Beach. Johnson has an assured, steady hand in creating complex plotlines in Fatal Brushstroke. Readers will definitely want to revisit Vista Beach in Aurora's next outing of investigating. Just watch out for those inline skaters on the beachside bike path!" - Naomi Hirahara, Edgar Award-Winning Author of Murder on Bamboo Lane
"When the body of Hester Bouquet, a famous decorative painting designer, shows up in her garden, Aurora "Rory" Anderson finds herself painted into a corner. Can she prove her innocence before the surly Chief of Police puts her in the clink and throws away the key? Can she trust the handsome new detective sending mixed messages? Set in a small beach town in Southern California, with Fatal Brushstroke Sybil Johnson has penned a fun and fast-paced romp with plenty of suspense and intrigue, colorful characters, infidelity and family secrets. Fatal Brushstroke is sure to please cozy readers, especially those who love crafts mixed with murder." - Sue Ann Jaffarian, Author of the Bestselling Ghost of Granny Apples and Odelia Grey Mystery Series
Books in the Aurora Anderson Mystery Series:
FATAL BRUSHSTROKE (#1)
PAINT THE TOWN DEAD (#2) Summer 2015
Part of the Henery Press Mystery Series Collection, if you like one, you'll probably like them all...
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About the Author
Vanessa Daniels has worked as a professional actress in theater, film, TV, commercials, and voice-over for almost two decades. She holds a BFA in drama from New York University and is a member of SAG-AFTRA and Actors' Equity Association.
Read an Excerpt
A fluffy ball of fur named Mitzi was the first to sniff out the intruder, alerting the unsuspecting residents of Seagull Lane to the grim discovery.
The frenzied yipping went on for several minutes before the noise dug its way into Rory Anderson's brain. When she realized the barking was coming from her own backyard, she abandoned the computer program she was working on and headed outside to see what the fuss was about.
As soon as she stepped out the back door, a white Pomeranian who lived down the street bounded toward her. Rory stooped down to address the dog. "What's wrong, Mitzi? What's got you so excited?"
The pint-sized Pom raced back and forth between the plot of earth she'd been digging in and the human who'd answered her call. Rory followed Mitzi to the flowerbed, but before she had time to examine it, Mrs. Maldonado poked her head around the partially-open gate leading to the front yard and the street beyond. After delivering the dog into the arms of her grateful owner, Rory walked across the lawn to see what the furry digger found so interesting.
She took one look at the flowerbed and knew someone other than Mitzi had been in her backyard. Along with the cigarette butts that littered the churned-up dirt, the wheelbarrow and shovel her gardener left behind had moved. She eyed the colony of weeds near the fence. Strange. There weren't as many of the little green monsters as she remembered.
Rory's gaze swept the L-shaped yard from the gate, past the back door of the single-story stucco house, all the way around the corner to the detached garage. Nothing else seemed to have been disturbed.
Using azaleas, camellias, and a host of plants Rory couldn't name, her gardener had painted a landscape worthy of a magazine cover. The only eyesore was the flowerbed the Pomeranian had been rummaging around in, an area Javier had cleared out right before he was called away on a family emergency. When he left two weeks ago, he assured her he'd return to finish the project. Maybe the crisis had finally passed and he'd stopped by as promised, although she doubted the cigarette butts were his. She couldn't recall ever seeing him smoke.
When Rory bent down to inspect the flowerbed, she caught sight of something twinkling in the dirt. She knelt down on the grass and plunged her hand into the cool earth, clearing away the soil from around the sparkling object.
An involuntary cry of alarm sprang from her lips. Her tennis shoes slid on the damp grass as Rory leapt to her feet and gaped at the finger sticking out of the dirt. She closed her eyes and said to herself over and over again: It's not real. It's all in your mind. Once she'd convinced herself the finger was a vision caused by too many hours at the computer, she opened her eyes and stared down at the ground again.
The finger was still there.
Rory shaded her eyes from the spring sun and peered around her backyard, hoping to find a teenage prankster lurking behind a bush. When no one popped out to claim responsibility, she fought back a wave of nausea. The cereal she'd eaten for breakfast rose in her throat. She swallowed hard.
Rory stared, mesmerized, at the finger. She dropped to her knees next to the flowerbed and mustered the courage to bend down for a closer examination of the misplaced digit.
Heart pounding so hard she half expected it to leap out of her chest, Rory removed a chunk of weeds from around the finger, exposing a well-manicured nail. Gingerly, she brushed away the dirt. More of the finger came into view. She avoided touching the skin as she removed more dirt, unearthing a hand, then a jacket-clad forearm. A diamond ring with a stone as large as a Hershey's Kiss glittered in the sunlight.
Rory sat back on her haunches, pushed her long brown hair behind her ears, and took a deep breath to counteract another wave of nausea. She remained rooted to the spot, her brain frozen, unable to process the situation. Gradually, her mind cleared and the panic subsided. As calmly as she could, she stood up and backed away from the makeshift gravesite, brushed the dirt off her jeans, and reached for the cell phone clipped to her belt.
After dialing 9-1-1, Rory cleaned her hands at a faucet near the back door and posted herself next to her charge, determined to stand guard until the police arrived. She longed to get as far away from the site as possible but, having found the body, she now felt responsible for it.
She avoided looking at the arm as she paced the grass in front of the flowerbed, zipping and unzipping the hooded sweatshirt she wore over a short-sleeved T-shirt, periodically glancing at the time on her cell phone. A patrol car should have been here by now. After all, Vista Beach was only a mile wide and two miles long where it hugged the coast just south of LAX. They should be able to dash from one end to the other in a matter of minutes.
Standing on her toes, Rory peeked over the fence that separated the front yard from the back. Birds twittered in the trees. A gray tabby wandered by. She moved over to the open gate for a better view of Seagull Lane. The only sign of human activity on the narrow street was the drone of a lawnmower down the block. She turned back to the flowerbed and resumed her pacing.
Burglary, vandalism, identity theft, and the odd home invasion robbery were the extent of the crimes in her quiet town. She doubted the police department had the resources to deal with the problem that now confronted them. Perhaps they were consulting with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's department, as neighboring cities had done in similar situations, and that's why no one had arrived yet.
Rory stopped mid-zip when another possible reason for the delay popped into her mind: Chief Redmond Marshall wanted to respond to the call personally. She never knew what to say to the man. Guilt swept through her every time she saw the scar on his neck, a daily reminder of the fire that killed the chief's wife and young daughter almost thirty years ago when Rory was barely two years old.
Rory sensed movement behind her and turned to find a squirrel sitting five feet away. They locked eyes for a moment before she motioned with her hands for it to leave. After successfully shooing the inquisitive animal away, her gaze strayed to the flowerbed. She moved around its edge, ducking her six-foot frame under an overhanging branch to examine the area in more detail. Putting her hands in the pockets of her hoodie so she wouldn't inadvertently disturb the scene, she leaned down to inspect the jacket sleeve. Even with a button missing and soil embedded in the fabric, she could tell the garment was expensive. Several spots that looked like Phthalo Blue acrylic paint captured her interest. With her butt in the air and nose to the dirt, Rory studied the hand while she waited for the police to arrive.
The dainty fingers and gigantic ring seemed vaguely familiar, but she had no idea where she'd seen them before. Most of the paint spots on the back of the hand were mere specks except for the splotches on the index and middle fingers that had originally attracted her attention. A thin strip of something black peeked out from under the arm.
Rory leaned in for a better view. She felt herself falling forward. Horrified, she groped around for something to stop her descent. With her nose almost touching the partially exposed body and the scent of damp earth filling her nostrils, her flailing hand found the wood fence to her right. She braced herself against it and breathed a sigh of relief when she recovered her balance.
"Aurora Anderson?" a deep voice behind her called out.
She straightened up and promptly slammed her head into the tree branch that hung over the fence. Rory winced in pain and, careful to avoid another collision with the branch, turned to face the man who had called out her name.
From the way his suit fit his frame, Rory pegged him as someone who spent a considerable amount of time at the gym. As she walked the short distance toward him a look of surprise flitted across the man's face but, by the time she reached him, his features had settled into a polite mask.
Rory rubbed her head where a bump was already beginning to form and stared down into eyes as dark and inscrutable as Chief Marshall's, although this man was at least twenty years younger and a whole lot thinner — and way cuter — than Vista Beach's rotund Chief of Police. The man straightened his tie and flashed a badge. "Detective Green. You called about a body, ma'am?" Rory felt her face heat up. Good looking men always made her flustered and this one was no exception. She moved to the side and pointed to the arm sticking out of the dirt.
The detective studied the flowerbed, not bothering to glance around the rest of the yard. With a start, Rory realized he'd probably been standing behind her for a while, silently studying the scene before him. Although he hadn't mentioned it, she felt sure he'd witnessed her near dive into the flowerbed. She looked down at her tennis shoes to hide her embarrassment.
Detective Green turned his attention back to Rory. "Okay, Ms. Anderson. Let's talk over here." As they headed toward the spot he'd indicated near the gate, the detective nodded at the uniformed officer now stationed by the yard's entrance. "Tell me how you found the body."
"A Pomeranian named Mitzi led me to it. I was inside the house working. Freelance computer programming. I heard her barking so I came outside to see what was going on. That's when I found the body and called 9-1-1 on my cell."
"Where's the dog now?"
"At home with its owner." She paused before giving him the address, a little uneasy about the police wanting to see the animal.
The detective seemed to sense her concern. "Don't worry, we won't hurt the dog. It's just routine. We might get evidence off its paws or fur. I promise we'll treat her gently," he said after jotting the information down in a flip-top notepad he pulled out of his jacket pocket. "When was the last time anyone was back here?" He looked pointedly at the long grass. "Your gardener been here recently?" Out of the corner of her eye, Rory caught sight of the entrance to the yard where crime scene personnel were signing in with the uniformed officer. Years of watching CSI, Columbo, and all the other crime shows on television hadn't prepared her for the real thing. She kept hoping she'd wake up and discover this was a dream.
"Ma'am? Your gardener?"
Rory tore her thoughts away from the activity at the gate. "Sorry. I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around this. You were saying?" "Your gardener?" The detective prompted, a patient note in his voice.
"I haven't seen him since — Oh." A vision of a hand demonstrating brushstrokes on poster board popped into Rory's mind. She stole a glance at the flowerbed to confirm her suspicions, but a new arrival blocked her view of the body. Still, she didn't really need to see the hand to know she was right.
Rory hugged her sweatshirt to her chest, trying to ward off the coldness that was creeping into her bones.
"Ma'am? Is everything okay? Do you need to sit down?"
She pulled herself together and shook her head. "I'm fine. It's just ... I know who that is. I know who the arm belongs to."
Rory had just realized someone she'd seen alive and well not two weeks before was buried in her garden.CHAPTER 2
"You're telling me you know who that is just from looking at the arm?" Detective Green paused in his note taking.
Rory crossed over to the flowerbed, sidestepping the police photographer taking pictures of the partially visible corpse and the team searching the bushes for evidence. She pointed at the arm protruding from the dirt. "I've seen that ring before. Plus, see those flecks of blue there?" She indicated several spots on the index and middle fingers. "I'm almost positive it's acrylic paint. That's Hester Bouquet."
Detective Green glanced down at the hand before grabbing Rory's elbow and guiding her back to the spot by the gate. "For now I'll assume you're right. How do you know this Bouquet woman?"
"I took a class from her a couple weeks ago."
The detective's mouth twitched. "After one class you can identify her arm?"
"It was a tole painting class. I spent an entire weekend staring at her hand while she demonstrated painting techniques. Believe me, I'd know it anywhere."
"Toll painting? Somehow, I doubt you're talking about the fee I paid to get here this morning."
"Not t-o-l-l as in roads and bridges, but t-o-l-e as in decorative painting. Painting designs on fabric, wood, tin ... just about anything, really. I have some examples in the house if you want to see them."
"That's not necessary. I get the idea." Detective Green jotted something down before asking the next question. "When was the last time you heard from her?"
"I haven't seen her since the seminar the weekend before last." At least that was true, Rory thought. "As far as I know, she wasn't planning on stopping by. We weren't buddies or anything."
"But you got along?"
Rory told herself the phone calls were an aberration. They didn't count. She didn't want the detective wasting time on something she knew had nothing to do with Hester's death when the real culprit was still out there. She turned her attention to the flowerbed where a woman wearing a jacket with the words "Coroner Investigator" emblazoned on the back oversaw the digging out of the remains.
Almost against her will, Rory's gaze fixated on what was left of her tole painting teacher, a domineering woman barely five feet tall whose classes were always full even though she hadn't published any new designs in years. Known for her realistic florals, but adept at all styles of painting, Hester was a fixture at decorative painting conventions, teaching students from all over the country. Rory had seen her in passing at a handful of conventions, but they'd never met until the recent seminar. Her eyes teared up when she remembered how full of life the woman had been.
"She painted beautifully," Rory said in a soft voice, more to herself than the policeman.
Detective Green cleared his throat.
Rory composed herself. "She conducts — conducted — classes at her home in Malibu in a painting studio separate from the main house. We all arrived Friday evening and left late Sunday afternoon."
"How many people are we talking about?"
"Six." The image of the six of them, all women, practicing brushstrokes in the studio popped into her mind. She'd had high hopes for the class but, halfway through, she'd wished she'd never signed up for it.
"Lots of personal attention, then?"
"A fair amount. That was how she made money. Teaching classes and creating pattern packets." When the detective appeared confused, she elaborated. "Designs with instructions on how to paint them."
The detective raised his eyebrows. "How many of these classes did she teach?"
"Quite a few. Her family would know the details." Rory's head began to pound. She massaged the bump on her head and averted her eyes so she wouldn't see the progress the diggers were making.
Detective Green closed his notebook and said in a somewhat reassuring fashion, "That's all I need for now. Why don't you go back inside? I'll let you know if I have any more questions." He turned his back on Rory and began a discussion with the woman from the coroner's office.
As soon as the detective dismissed her, Rory darted inside and went straight to her work area at the front of the house she'd moved into a little over a year ago. Even though she'd been born in Vista Beach, Rory had spent most of her life in the Inland Empire with only occasional trips to the city to visit her grandmother. After Nana died, Rory and her parents had moved back to town. Soon after she'd settled into the twelve hundred square-foot structure, Rory had partitioned the great room that spanned the entire width of the house into office and living areas.
She slathered her hands with several pumps of antibacterial gel, closed the blinds, settled down in her desk chair, and placed the headphones of her MP3 player over her ears. With Handel's "Water Music" washing over her, the pounding in her head lessened and, for a moment, she forgot about the morning's discovery.
But when Rory stared at her computer screen, her mind refused to focus on mundane programming tasks. All she could think about was the scene unfolding in her backyard. In an effort to get her mind off her painting teacher's untimely death, Rory flipped through a technical manual, nibbling on mint chocolate candies she kept in a bowl on her desk while she checked out each entry. After she'd read the same paragraph for the tenth time, she decided she needed a more constructive outlet for her nervous energy.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Fatal Brushstroke"
Copyright © 2014 Sybil Johnson.
Excerpted by permission of Henery Press.
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