Excerpt: Isabella’s Painting book 1 in Ellen Butler’s Karina Cardinal mystery series. 

Isabella’s Painting will be arriving May 2, 2018. It is now available for preorder. Visit your favorite digital booksellers here:  

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The hallway was silent, but I could see well enough—tiny nightlights plugged into outlets intermittently lit the way to the grand staircase. My socked feet barely made a sound as I drifted down the steps. The tick of the grandfather clock in the front hall sounded loud to my ears, and I nearly jumped out of my skin as it struck the half hour with a sing-song chime. I stopped in my tracks with a hand to my chest. Finally, the last echo of the bells ended, and I carried on to the kitchen. It took but a moment to find a clean glass, fill it with water, and slug back the two little pills that would bring relief.

When Patrick told me his mother had invited us to spend the night following the party, I’d originally thought it a fine idea. It allowed both of us to drink and not have to worry about driving home or getting a cab. Now, I wished for the comforts of my own bed. As I swallowed the last of the liquid, I glanced around the kitchen, also lit by nightlights, and found little sign of the party that had just finished a few hours ago. No glassware or dishes lined the sink, and the counters were wiped clean. The catering staff did their job well. I ran my hand along the quartz and saw a green light in the corner, near the ceiling, turn to red. It was one of the motion sensors Patrick had pointed out earlier. He’d said the motion sensors were only turned on when the house was empty. The light turned green again. I waved my hand, and the light went red. I guessed the sensors were always on by default, just not armed to trigger the alarm.

Gently, I laid the glass on the counter. Something else came to mind that Patrick had mentioned. There were no cameras inside the house. Molly had put her foot down, and refused to allow Marty to install interior cameras, because she “didn’t like the feeling of being spied on in her own home.” His father relied on the pressure plates beneath the sculptures and artwork to keep them safe. When I’d asked Patrick about the hunting scene above the fireplace in library, he laughed and said it was practically worthless. His mother had picked it up at a flea market when they were a young couple, struggling to make ends meet. It held more sentimental value than a monetary one.

The knob twisted beneath my fingers, and the low glow of the lamp came to life. Somehow my feet had drawn me down the hall to the library, and now I stood staring at the “worthless” painting. Though I valued the beauty and importance in historical culture, I knew very little about art. Living in the D.C. area, I had trotted through the art museums on the Mall for class field trips, and occasionally played tour guide for out-of-town guests. I could differentiate between a Picasso and Degas, but that’s where my expertise ended.

The hunting scene looked good to me. The brush strokes were fine, and the bright red paint colors of the hunter’s coats drew me into the picture. Black and white hounds, their tails up and ears perked, seemed ready to dart off into the fields to find their fox. However, the painting wasn’t the reason I stood in the library now. Brazen curiosity could be the only explanation.

My fingers pushed and prodded decorative pieces of trim surrounding the mantle, the fluted plinth, the center of a carved flower, the pineapple in the middle of the frieze. Nothing. I couldn’t shake the feeling something had moved in this area, and Marty had definitely been irritated by my barging in. Was there a hidey hole in the fireplace, or possibly a passage to a secret room? The residence was large enough to house a hidden chamber. I remembered reading an old gothic novel about an art collector who kept high-value artwork in a concealed room off the study. I felt like Nancy Drew searching for a clue.

But a clue to what?

When the fireplace yielded nothing, I turned in a circle. Floor to ceiling bookshelves lined both sides of the long walls of the rectangular room. A library ladder on rails stood midway down on the left side. It would take hours for me to test the books and knick-knacks filling the shelves. Besides, my instincts told me the books were the wrong track.

The opposite end of room from the fireplace revealed a pair of French doors leading out onto the back patio and pool area. Marty’s antique desk sat closer to the doors than the fireplace. On it was a desk blotter, pencil holder, a few framed photos of family, and various bric-a-brac. The cleanup crew must not have visited this room because the brandy snifters from earlier remained. Chris’s still held liquid in the bulbous glass, however, Marty’s had been emptied.

The leather chair creaked as I lowered myself onto the seat. Ahead of me rose the magnificent fireplace. The bottom drawer was locked, but the other drawers opened and closed with little effort and were filled with nothing unusual—files, paperclips, pens, a stapler. What had Marty been reaching for? I closed my eyes and allowed my fingers to feel under the lip of the desktop. Sure enough, some sort of catch met my searching touch. I pressed. There was a click. The hunting scene disappeared upwards to reveal another smaller painting.

The grandfather clock began its chime, startling me. I jumped, pressing the hidden button, and the painting disappeared. In between the tolling, I heard a new sound—the creak of a floor board.

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