Death in a Pale Hue by Susan Van Kirk

Who knew going home could be deadly?

I will show them success. Thirty-year-old artist Jill Madison repeats this mantra when she returns to her small hometown to restart her life. Hired to manage a new community art center, she vows to make it successful so the people of her town will have what she did not have—an education in the arts. She no sooner accepts the job than a burglar makes off with an irreplaceable sculpture and workers find a ghastly surprise in the basement. Investigating places Jill right in the path of a murderer.

How will she keep her job, run her first big event, and escape a killer who plans to paint her out of the picture permanently?

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Our old neighbors’ yards came into view, and I took, out of habit, the short cut through the back yards to get to my house faster.

I heard my brother Tom’s voice in my head. “Don’t go out alone. Don’t be by yourself after dark. This guy means business.” We had huge trees all through the neighborhood, and if anyone were following me, he would have had lots of cover and shadows. I walked as fast as I could, my breath coming heavily, my heart pounding in my ears.

Besides the thump-thump of my heartbeat, I thought I could hear footsteps following me. Was I imagining them? I couldn’t stop to check it out, so I kept moving as fast as I could. I was into the Wendovers’ yard, and once I cleared the house, I took a tiny glance back. I was sure I saw a shadow move near the old oak in the Palmers’ yard.

That was when I began to run.

I sprinted across Mary Street, its one meager streetlight down the block shining on the asphalt. Racing across the smooth surface, I had two more neighborhood yards to go. Looking back, I thought I saw a dark figure—a black shadow—moving along near Palmers’ trees on an exact line with me. Into Driscolls’ yard, running, running, with another swing set and a round umbrella-table, an above-ground pool affording me a little cover. Out of Driscolls’ yard and into ours, running as fast as I could go now, my breath coming out in spurts, my legs exhausted.

My red silk neck scarf had come loose from my neck and fallen off behind me, but instead of stopping to go back for it, I pulled my tote from my elbow where it had slipped, and my fingers rifled through lipstick, wallet, tissues, pens, receipts, lip balm, and, finally, thank God, keys. Grasping them, my fingers sorted around until I found the familiar house key. Up the steps to the back deck. Opening the screen door, I pushed the key home, pulled it out, stumbled over the threshold, dropped my tote, locked the screen and the inside door, and collapsed into a kitchen chair, totally out of breath and shaking. I hadn’t turned on a light. I simply sat in the dark, my chest heaving up and down, up and down, my legs stretched out to stop their shaking.

I’m not sure how long I sat there, quivering in the dark. Had I imagined someone? I knew I had heard twigs breaking, but couldn’t it have been squirrels or neighborhood cats or other nocturnal creatures? The shadows—trees? I was used to studying shadows since they were an integral part of painting, but right now my terror was conflicting with my vision. I began to take deep smooth breaths, laid my head back, listened to the quiet. Not gonna tell Tom, I thought. He’d kill me. He’d lock me in their house until I was forty.

Finally, I rose, kicked off my shoes, almost stumbled over my tote, and carried it out to the dining room, still not turning on a light. I began systematically pulling shades and curtains on the first floor. My anxiety level was still high, my heart slower but still pounding softly in my head.

There, I thought. Home at last. Doors locked. All is well. I walked back out to the kitchen and considered turning on the light. No, I’d turn on the light out on the back pole at the far end of the yard near the shed, plus the one on the deck. Clicking the switches by the back door, I pulled open the curtains on the window a narrow slit and peeked out into the now well-lit yard. No one lurked anywhere.

Just before pulling the curtains shut again, I gasped, my face flushed and tingly.

Hanging from the handrail on the deck, tied with a knot, was my red silk scarf.

About the Author

Susan Van Kirk lives at the center of the universe—the Midwest—and writes during the ridiculously cold, snowy, icy winters. Why leave the house and break something? Her Endurance Mysteries—Three May Keep a Secret, The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney, Marry in Haste, Death Takes No Bribes and The Witch’s Child—are humorous cozies about a retired schoolteacher in the small town of Endurance who keeps finding herself in the middle of murders. She has also written a historical mystery called A Death at Tippitt Pond. Her latest book, Death in a Pale Hue, is the first of a new series from Level Best Books. She’s a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, and president of the online writing group at Sisters in Crime.

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