Tiger's Palette (Caroline Canfield Mysteries)

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9780671015596: Tiger's Palette (Caroline Canfield Mysteries)
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A zoo full of cagey creatures and sketchy clues... With a habit of looking everywhere except where she's going, thirty-one-year-old wildlife artist Caroline Canfield knows one thing for sure: accidents have a way of finding her. So after her free-spirited mentor, Anthony Chirico, plunges to his suspicious death from a scaffold, Caroline initially turns down the chance to finish his jungle mural at the Fox Valley Zoo. Aware of Tony's penchant for leaving hidden messages in his work, Caroline starts to wonder if his fall was no accident -- and when she finds Tony's assistant with a knife in his throat, she gets the point that someone desperately wants to keep the zoo's new exhibit from opening. Spurred by her desire to know the truth and uncover the secrets of the mural, Caroline reluctantly accepts the Fox Valley Zoo commission. But working at the zoo isn't a walk in the park -- animals are being threatened and "accidents" start happening with alarming frequency. If Caroline doesn't put the pieces of the puzzle together soon, she may never get out of this jungle alive.

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About the Author:

Jacqueline Fiedler is an independent graphic designer and wildlife painter whose avocation has long been mystery writing. In her spare time she's likely to be found at the zoo observing and sketching her subjects. She lives in Chicago and is currently at work on Sketches with Wolves, her next Caroline Canfield mystery for Pocket Books.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

The last time I saw Tony he told me of an old belief, perhaps still held in some parts of the world, that the whiskers of the tiger are deadly. When scalded in liquid they are said to produce a lethal drink. Funny how the myth became reality.

I kept a comfortable distance from the coffin, but even from the sidelines of the chapel, I could see Tony's hands -- clutching in death his closest companions in life. He would embrace them for eternity, for he'd be buried with three Winsor & Newton paintbrushes pressed to his chest.

For six years I had worked with him daily, but for the last three we had drifted apart. It is the fate of mentor and protege -- the better the teacher, the more eager the student is to fly. And Anthony Chirico had been as good as mentors come.

A shiver rocked my shoulders. The air-conditioned chapel was as cold as a tomb -- just not as silent. A string of Italian expletives erupted from the alcove to my left like a siren going off. The shrill voice -- once heard, never forgotten -- belonged to Tony's ex-wife, Antoinetta.

"Bastarda!" she screamed. "You have shown your hand! Get out! Bastarda!"

The room fell silent as a dark-haired figure fled from the alcove. I strained to get a better look at the object of Antoinetta's wrath, but even three-inch heels didn't offer a view beyond the high-rise hairdo of the woman next to me.

A curtain rang down across the alcove's doorway. Antoinetta had made a full-time career of driving off Tony's girlfriends, and this was probably just one more episode. Conversation in the room resumed, until another shriek ripped the air.

The visitors once again fell silent, their attention riveted on the draperied alcove as though anticipating Act Two. The curtain billowed several times, then through it -- low to the ground like a streak of oily exhaust -- shot a tiny, black-shrouded figure, emitting a whine like an untuned outboard motor. No one made an entrance like Antoinetta.

She torpedoed forward, her target apparent. Those of us in her trajectory moved quickly aside. In the widow's wake rushed two matronly figures, also dressed in black.

Antoinetta flung herself at the casket, her fists pummeling its side. "You bring shame to this family!" She brandished a fist in front of Tony's face. "I warn you. What you didn't pay in this life, you will pay in the next!"

"And if anyone can collect, it's Antoinetta," someone behind me muttered.

Surrounding the widow, relatives struggled to separate her from the casket, but she had clamped her hands like wrenches around the coffin's brass handrail. The two stout matrons pried her fingers loose and escorted her back to the private room. Once again the curtain fell across the alcove.

Glad at least that Tony hadn't witnessed that scene, I exhaled in relief, then drew another breath for courage. Slowly, I wended my way through the sea of women toward the coffin. Women had adored Tony, and the floozy faction was out in full force that day at the chapel in St. Charles, Illinois. We were forty miles west of the Loop, but there was enough hair spray in the room to fuel the great Chicago fire all over again. Fortunately, Mrs. O'Leary and her cow weren't among the mourners.

With each step I forced myself closer. You can't leave. There's so much more I need to know -- about painting -- about life. No more discussions of Old Masters over glasses of Frascati, no more quarrels about the status of women in art, no more help when I struggled with a painting. This is it -- the last time I'll ever see you. I really am on my own. I shrank back, but the movement of the crowd propelled me forward until I stood at Tony's side.

My eyes shifted nervously in search of a haven to rest -- anyplace but his face. Behind the casket glowed a back-lit photo of mountains and a lake. I'd seen one like it before -- only with a beer logo over the snowy peak. The prosaic landscape, softened by sheer draperies, seemed a deliberate slap in the face to the master landscape muralist lying in state. At least it was consistent with the warped tape of "Rock of Ages" that throbbed over the sound system. My eyes went back to Tony's hands, wandered to the paintbrushes, hesitated on the knot in his necktie, but then reluctantly drifted to his face.

To look at him, one would never suspect the turbulence of his life. Even at sixty-eight, few lines marked the tight skin of his square face. His curly, light gray hair contrasted with bristly dark brows and steely mustache. A lump lodged in my throat. Tony's image blurred. Though the room was packed, I was quite alone with him for just a moment. Good-bye, dear teacher. Good-bye, dear friend.

"Get up closer, would'ja? I only brought my readin' glasses," a creaky voice said.

"Hold yer garters, Gert. You're steppin' on my corn," another answered.

Opposing odors of lilac/cedar closet clashed with gardenia/mothball and met head on under my nose. I glanced left, then right. I felt like I had just stepped into a Paris music hall scene painted by Toulouse-Lautrec. Two geriatric bimbos flanked me, blocking my retreat. I closed my eyes, but the sight was too much for even the untrained eye to forget.

The woman to my left had acid-yellow hair swept up into a beehive. Four violent tints of eye shadow, refusing to blend, stained the fleshy pockets of her eyes, like the washes of a garish watercolor. "Just look at him," she said. "He don't look like hisself."

Not to be outdone, the woman to my right sported winged hair the color of tangerines. Her makeup was heavy enough to have been applied with a palette knife. The tangerine reached into the coffin and rearranged Tony's hair as she clucked disapproval. "His hair used to be thicker. And why's his face so yellow?"

I bent forward to peer at Tony. His hair was thinner than I remembered, and his Sicilian complexion leaned more to chartreuse than olive, as well.

"Guess he won't be needing the lotion I bought him for that dry skin." The beehive perched her claw on Tony's wrist. "He was just so handsome. Like that Arab movie actor, Homar Sheriff." Her joints crackled as she bent to kiss Tony's cheek.

Seeking comfort in each other, the two women merged in front of me. I stepped back. Like air to a vacuum, women surged forward to claim the space I'd surrendered. They scratched and clawed at Tony like tigers over a kill.

I retreated to the side of the chapel, pausing to view a large spray of unusual and delicate flowers. Curious as to their sender, I reached for the memorial card attached to a spiky stem. The sweet floral scent made me lightheaded. Or perhaps it was the glimpse I caught of the man next to me -- just when I thought I'd given up on men.

From the corner of my eye, I judged him to be in his late thirties. While my hand fished for the card, I turned my head for a discrete look. Deep tan, longish thick brown hair. The light gray sport coat he wore over sharply creased jeans struck me as being formal for him.

When he glanced up from the bouquet and made eye contact, I instinctively smiled and held his gaze as my hand, fishing for the memorial card, continued to make circles inside the bouquet. Then with a sudden look of urgency on his face, the man lunged at me. I flinched, letting out a shrill cry. His hands shot past me to the vase, which was wobbling precariously. He planted it firmly back on its pedestal. For a moment it looked like he might speak, but he only smiled as though amused and turned away.

Glancing in embarrassment around the room, I happened to spot Tony's son. Even from behind, Vince was easy to identify in a crowd. His stiff posture and square shoulders always made me wonder if the hanger was still in his suit coat.

Before founding Chirico Construction, Vince had worked with me at Tony's art studio. All that summer father and son rubbed each other the wrong way. In the end Vince snapped his brushes in half, slashed a canvas and stormed out, swearing never to return. Tony cursed at him and threw a paint pot at the slammed door. And me? I got to clean it all up.

Keeping Vince in sight, I sliced my way through the wall-to-wall female bodies. Like a baby in the birth canal, I squeezed my shoulders together for the final passage, emerging right on target. My face plowed into the back of his silk suit.

He turned and steadied me, gripping my shoulders. "Caroline. Still tripping through life, I see."

"I'm thinking of just having 'excuse me' tattooed across my forehead," I said.

"Forget it. I'm used to women falling all over me. It's the Chirico curse." His hug enveloped me in a vapor of Pierre Cardin cologne as my lips brushed his cheek. Brush strokes of premature gray swept through the wiry black hair at his temples. Like his father, his dark good looks would only improve with age.

"Vince, I'm so very sorry."

"No harm done." Vince adjusted the turquoise hanky in his breast pocket. "Really."

"I meant I'm sorry about your dad."

"Oh, that."

That?

He poked out his chin and straightened his tie. "The old man had a full life doing his thing. Not everyone's that lucky."

"You are, aren't you?"

"Finally." Vince turned away to stare at the coffin. His shoulders slumped ever so slightly. "But he never forgave me for not following in his footsteps. He couldn't understand my idea of art was in building three-dimensional structures, not two-dimensional paintings."

"He knew somebody needed to build the walls before he could paint his murals."

"Yeah, well, the old man built plenty of walls himself." He crossed his arms. Diamond-studded cuff links peeked out from his coat sleeve. Vince's downcast gaze drifted to my fingers bundled in white gauze. "What the hell happened to you?"

I flipped my hand back and forth. "Sadistic staple gun. I was stretching a canvas and --"

"How the hell do you survive? You're a walking accident."

He had a point. As a kid, whatever wasn't bandaged was bruised. My mother had constantly warned me, "Watch where you're going, not where you've been." But I never outgrew the tendency. My eyes simply won't be confined to the road ahead. The sights around me remain too fascinating.

"Smart move you made giving up mural work," Vince added.

"After I nearly fell...I mean, if Tony hadn't grabbed me..." I sighed. "Anyway, afterwards I told him that was it for me. No more scaffolds. A drawing board and easel are more my speed."

"No shit. What did the old man say when you laid it on the line?"

"Nothing much. He was...disappointed in me." In many ways that had hurt more. "Since I've always loved painting animals, I opened my own studio. It's called 'It's a Wild Life.'"

Vince chuckled. "The old man put wildlife art in the same class as paintings of Elvis on black velvet."

"And yet Tony loved animals. When I asked him once about the inconsistency, he said he loved fruit, bread and wine too, but he wouldn't be caught dead painting a still life." Realizing my tactless comment, I quickly added, "That's why I was so surprised when he took the zoo commission."

"Wait'll you see Asia World." Vince's eyes sparkled. "Chirico Construction built the whole exhibit. It'll knock your socks off."

"I can't wait to see it. How did you ever get Tony to agree to paint wildlife murals?"

"Aw, there's a few animals in 'em, but they're basically landscapes -- backdrops for the exhibits. Landscape was always his first love." Vince's eyes darkened, shadowed by heavy brows. "Maybe his only love." All Tony had told me was that he viewed the series of zoo murals as a chance to reunite his family. Apparently the reconciliation hadn't occurred. "How in hell did you put up with him all those years?" Vince asked.

"He was an artist, not a diplomat. He just wanted me to be the best painter I could be." I had overlooked behavior and comments from Tony I wouldn't have taken from anyone else. When I weighed my hurt feelings against what he'd taught me, the scales always tipped in his favor. I stared into Vince's umber eyes. "You look more and more like him." I knew the words were a mistake as soon as they left my mouth.

His eyes flashed. "I'm nothing like my father. I put my family first."

I shifted my eyes and shoulder bag simultaneously. "Where are Sara and the kids?"

Vince's lips tightened. "My wife hasn't been well since the miscarriage last year. I felt today might be too stressful for her. What about you? Still single?"

I merely nodded. After hitting thirty last year, I'd stopped offering explanations. I looked back at the coffin. "How could this happen, Vince?"

Vince shrugged. "He always said he'd die with his boots on. Shit happens."

The frown I felt inside must have appeared on my face.

His eyes searched mine. "Look, I know you lost your dad as a kid. You never had time to get to know your father the way I got to know mine. Maybe you were lucky."

My eyes tightened on his. "I'll just forget you said that."

Across the room, Antoinetta's steady whine turned to a wail. My eyes followed Vince's nervous over-the-shoulder glance toward the curtained alcove. Ashen-faced relatives barricaded the portal. One woman made the sign of the cross.

Vince gritted his perfectly aligned white teeth. "The son of a...even denied my mother the comfort of her priest by stipulating no religious funeral service."

I sensed the solace Antoinetta sought wasn't religion -- unless it involved black magic.

"I'd better check on Mother." Vince squeezed my hand. "There'll be a small reception at the house about two o'clock. Stop by, okay?" He walked toward the alcove with the enthusiasm of a Christian on the way to the Colosseum.

I made my way down the side of the room to the rear. As I passed the doorway to the lobby, voices drew my attention. Planted at the mortuary's outside entrance stood a barrel-chested giant of a man wallowing in the onslaught of reporters and Minicams just outside the door. I recognized the media magnet in the bulging, tan safari suit as Miles Crandall, head of the Fox Valley Zoo.

A woman reporter, an up-and-comer on one of the Chicago nightly TV newscasts, jabbed a mike at him. "Tell me, Mr. Crandall --"

"Doctor Crandall," he corrected.

"Yes, well, how do you reply to rumors that Tony Chirico's fall could result in the closing of the zoo? If Fox Valley is held liable --"

Miles waved a giant arm in dismissal. Clearing his throat, he squared off with the Minicam. "Fox Valley Zoo has been totally absolved in this unfortunate accident. The scaffolding was inspected thoroughly and found to be faultless."

The reporter persisted. "Marcia Wilhelm and other animal rights activists say they will block the opening of the new exhibit one way or --"

"Nonsense. Asia World will open as scheduled. Mark your calendars, people, for October. We have a spectacular media event lined up..." With raised arms the zoo director stepped into the cluster of reporters outside, surrendering to the power of t...

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