The Color of Fear


By Marcia Muller

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In New York Times bestselling author Marcia Muller’s captivating mystery, private detective Sharon McCone’s investigation hits closer to home than ever before?Ķ

The Color of Fear

When a knock on the door in the middle of the night wakes Sharon, she’s wholly unprepared for the horrifying news: her father has been the victim of a vicious, racially-motivated attack.

A nationally recognized Shoshone artist, Elwood had been visiting Sharon for the holidays, browsing for gifts in San Francisco’s exclusive Marina district when he was set upon by a mob of angry young men. Now he lies in a coma, hovering between life and death.

With little progress on the investigation from the overworked, short-handed police, Sharon resolves to track down Elwood’s attackers herself. But when Sharon begins receiving hate-filled, racist threats from a shadowy group, it becomes clear that her pursuit of justice may be putting her own life in jeopardy…




The old man stands at one of the display windows of a jewelry store in San Francisco’s exclusive Marina district. He is tall and muscular, his face nut brown and deeply furrowed, and his long gray hair is tied back in a ponytail under his knit cap, falling over the collar of his flannel shirt. His jeans are faded but clean; his athletic shoes are scuffed, well used.

It is late, but he is not tired; with every advancing year he requires less and less sleep, as if his body is greedy to soak up every bit of life remaining to it. If even a few moments of that time should measure up to his earlier years, he will be rich in the experiences he treasures.

He has traveled here to San Francisco from his home on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana to spend the Christmas holidays with his daughter and her husband. San Francisco is not a city he has visited often, although the few times he did, he was impressed with it. For a number of years—long ago—he lived in New York City, which was necessary for his work. Then a young man, he had delighted in Manhattan’s brashness and energy, but when he returned to the reserve in Montana its serenity had comforted him. Now he is intrigued by this California city that seems to be so many different things to such a diverse population.

Tonight he has gone out for his customary walk and is contemplating a Christmas gift for his daughter. Those aquamarine earrings displayed in the window would please her, complement her black hair and dark eyes. Color is of primary importance to him, an artist of some renown.

His daughter is also a gift—to him. The child he never knew he had until she sought him out a few years ago at his small home in St. Ignatius on the rez. “I need to trace my family’s roots,” she’d told him. “I need to know who I am.”

At first he had been gruff with her, sent her away with orders to assemble her thoughts. His standard response when actually he’d needed to assemble his. But then she’d returned, and when all the twists and turns of their complicated lives had been sorted out, they had realized they were father and daughter. Of course, mere blood ties are less than what is required to forge a true relationship. But they’d worked at its creation, he and now his newfound child—along with her amazing extended family of relatives and friends—have made him part of something larger and stronger than himself.

The earrings, yes, he decides. He’ll return for them in the morning. He moves along the display window, looking for a suitable gift for his son-in-law—a kind, gentle man, but what the tribes used to call a warrior when circumstances warranted it. Come to think of it, his daughter is a warrior too.

A watch—yes! His son-in-law’s current one looks shabby and out-of-date. What if it fails him? Much of the man’s professional life depends on split-second timing. A good, well-styled watch, but not one of those foolish ones that provide extraneous useless data. His son-in-law has at his disposal far more sophisticated and reliable devices than those.

Of course, his Christmas shopping is far from completed. There are two cats in the household, and cats always enjoy treats. There is a housekeeper—a handsome woman of an indeterminate age—who divides her time between his daughter’s home and that of her best friend. And others of the couple’s friends who have welcomed him and made him feel a part of their circle. Not to mention those on the reserve who urged him to make this extended trip.

So much shopping. And wrapping. And mailing. But what else has he to do with the fortune he’s amassed over the years?

So much pleasure in finally having a reason to spend some of it.

Noises on the formerly silent, empty street interrupt his thoughts. Hard heels slapping on the pavement in a manner that reminds him of old Nazi war movies he’s seen on TV. They are coming from the west, the direction in which his daughter’s house lies. Coming close to him.

He turns away from the display window, peers into the misty night, but he can make out only dark shapes.

A low, almost imperceptible growl reaches his ears. That of a human, not an animal. His flesh ripples. He has heard such growls before, on the rez long ago when opposing factions allowed their passions to escalate to rage. Instinctively he whirls and tries to run, but one of the shapes rushes forward and a heavy hand falls upon his right shoulder, staying him. And then the others descend upon him, grabbing, pulling, shoving.

“Dirty old Indian,” a rough voice says close to his ear. “You don’t belong in this neighborhood.”

“I have every right to be here—”

“Like hell you do.” Another hand grabs his left arm, shakes it painfully.

“Probably planning to rob the jewelry store,” another voice says. “That’s what you bastards do when you come to our city, isn’t it, Geronimo? Break into places, steal like the savages you are.”

And then the blows begin to fall—on his head, shoulders, back. Hard shoes kick his legs, a fist slams into his abdomen and doubles him over. He tries to fight back, flailing with his arms and legs, but there are too many of them. The blows drive him to his knees, then topple him forward onto his side, his head striking the pavement.

The last thing he sees is a silver watch on the wrist of the first man to strike him.

The last thing he hears are the words, “You’re lucky we don’t kill you, Geronimo. The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

Hy and I are used to receiving urgent phone calls in the middle of the night, most of them requiring immediate action. But the doorbell ringing at this hour? That was both unusual and alarming. Few people know our home address.

Hy was immediately at the ready, reaching for the .45 he keeps in his nightstand. I put a cautioning hand on his shoulder and said, “It’s probably Elwood. I thought I heard him go out on one of his late-night rambles a while ago. He might’ve forgotten his key.”

“Let’s hope that’s all it is.”

We caught up our matching terry cloth robes, threw them on. As we started down the stairway, Hy said, “I love your dad, McCone, but why don’t we just pin the key to his jacket?”

“He’d probably forget it was there. Nobody on Moose Lane in St. Ignatius locks his or her house.”

I’d left the porch light of our Spanish-style house on, knowing Elwood might go out rambling, and I could see a pair of shapes through the glass panes beside the door. The back of my neck prickled. Those were cop shapes; something was very wrong. I disabled the security system and threw the door open. The officer who regularly patrolled this area, Winifred Sighesio, and her sometimes partner Jeff Barcy stood there, their faces tense. In an uncharacteristic gesture, Sighesio put her hand on my arm.

“Sorry to bother you this late, Ms. McCone, but it’s necessary,” she said. “May we come in?”

“Of course.” I motioned them toward the living room.

Elwood. It has to be something to do with Elwood.

We all remained standing while Sighesio said, “An old man was found not far from here an hour and a half ago, badly beaten, unconscious, with a possible concussion and other injuries. Shabbily dressed, looked to be Native American. One of the EMTs found your card”—she nodded to me—“in his pocket. Your home, office, and cell numbers and this address were written on the back.”

“Elwood!” His name burst out between the fingers I’d pressed to my lips. Hy had slipped the .45 into the pocket of his robe; he put both arms around me and pulled me back against his chest.

“A pro bono client, maybe?” Barcy said. “We can’t figure any other reason you’d have passed out one of your cards to a homeless guy—”

“He’s my father, goddamn it!”

“Your father?” Sighesio said in shocked tones. “We had no idea, Ms. McCone. The way he was dressed, we took him for a derelict…”

I blinked back tears. Through them I could see Barcy’s eyes sizing up our large living room with its buttery leather furnishings, native-stone fireplace, and big flat-screen TV. How, his expression asked, could a raggedy old Indian fit into such a place?

“Where is he now?” I demanded.

“SF General’s trauma unit.”

“How is he? What exactly are his injuries?”

“From what the EMTs could tell me, he has a broken arm, a broken femur, cracked ribs, numerous lacerations, and possibly a concussion and internal injuries. He hadn’t regained consciousness when they took him away in the ambulance.”

My God!

Hy asked her how Elwood had been found. She told us an anonymous caller had spotted him lying in the doorway of a jewelry store on Chestnut and called 911.

I asked shakily, “Was my father robbed?”

“Apparently not. His wallet contained quite a bit of cash and one credit card, Visa, issued in 2012.”

That was typical Elwood—one credit card, and he would pay the full balance every month.

“Any evidence on the scene?”

“Blood smears indicating he was attacked and beaten where he was found. Nothing to point to the perps.”

“What about witnesses?”

“As you know, the business section of Chestnut is pretty densely populated with shops, restaurants, and residential quarters above them. But there’s very little activity at this time of night. We’re going to canvass the area, but”—she threw out her arms helplessly—“we’re so short handed right now…”

“D’you know who’ll be investigating the case?”

“Not yet.”

“Well, whoever it is will have help from me.”

“Now just wait a minute,” Barcy blurted. “Department regulations specifically forbid—”

Sighesio silenced him with a look and a gesture. “Go wait outside, Jeff.”


“Just go!”

He went because she was the senior officer, but not before shooting her a resentful look.

“He needs sensitivity training,” she apologized. “He’s young, but if he doesn’t grow up fast, he won’t be with the PD much longer. You folks want a ride to SFG?”

“No,” I said, “we’ll drive ourselves.”

I was no stranger to the SF General campus, but the new Zuckerberg Trauma Center dwarfed the older buildings at the foot of Potrero Hill. The public had approved an $800,000-and-some-dollar bond measure a few years ago, but that amount covered only construction costs. Then Mark Zuckerberg, creator of Facebook, and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, stepped in, donating $75 million to equip and furnish the facility.

Fewer years ago than I care to remember, I’d been a patient at the old trauma center, first in a coma and then in a bullet-generated locked-in state where I was fully aware but unable to speak, move, or communicate in any way. Fortunately for me, its excellent staff—and later the staff at the rehab center the hospital referred me to—brought me back to the woman I’d once been, and I feel an intense loyalty to both the hospital and the center. Hy and I have directed a number of our philanthropic efforts their way—but of course in amounts nowhere near those of megarich folks like Zuckerberg and Chan.

Hy let me off at the door of the trauma center and went off to find a place to park. I joined the line for emergency room visitors, but one of the admitting personnel motioned me over—a male nurse who’d befriended and visited me frequently when I was in my locked-in state. He took charge, cutting through the standard waiting time of nearly an hour, and soon Hy and I were speaking with Dr. David Stiles, the neurosurgeon assigned to Elwood’s case.

As Sighesio had indicated, Elwood’s condition was very serious. He was in the intensive care unit and not allowed visitors at present. He still hadn’t regained consciousness.

“He’s strong for a man his age,” Stiles said. “Do you have any idea of when he was born, Ms. McCone?”

“I don’t know exactly, just that he’s in his eighties, but I can get the information on…from other relatives tomorrow.” I’d almost said “on the moccasin telegraph,” which would require too much explanation to this straightforward man of science.

“Your father’s bone density appears to be good. Breaks in the femur, the left arm, and the clavicle have been set. The two cracked ribs”—he shrugged—“all we could do was tape them.”

He paused.

Oh God, here it comes!

“The most serious potential problem is traumatic brain injury. Do you know what that is?”

“I ought to. I was a patient here when I had locked-in syndrome.”

“Ah—I thought your name was familiar. You’re something of a legend around here. Let’s hope your father is built of the same strong stuff you are.” He paused, then went on, “Here’s what else we’re doing: CT scans, which will reveal if he has suffered a concussion and/or a subdural hematoma; bone density and various standard tests. If a blood clot has formed, or there are indications one may form, surgery will be necessary.”

“Is he likely to have permanent brain damage?”

“At this point, we can’t hazard a guess. The brain is tricky, and it varies its tricks from day to day. Every case is different. Your father may have suffered brain damage of varying severity, or he could wake up one morning and be perfectly fine. Only time will tell.”

Since we couldn’t see Elwood yet and wouldn’t be able to for some time, Stiles suggested Hy and I return home. We would be notified immediately if there was any change in Elwood’s condition. I wanted to stay anyway, but Hy talked me out of it.

“There’s nothing for you to do at the hospital,” he said, “and plenty at home.”

He was right about that. It was now morning across the entire continent, and I had to face the unpleasant task of notifying our family members.

Saskia Blackhawk, my birth mother—more about that later—in Boise, Idaho, had become close to Elwood in recent years, so to begin with I phoned her. She expressed shock, then full lawyer-mode anger and indignation. “I’ll be at SFO on the first available flight and come directly to the hospital,” she told me.

Saskia is an attorney dealing in Indian rights who has argued before federal courts and the Supreme Court, winning every case. When Elwood’s attackers were found, her rage and legal expertise would make them pay the maximum penalty.

I asked her if she knew my father’s exact birth date. She did: April 13, 1935. “Before I let you go,” she said then, “please don’t call your other mother. It’s best I break the news to her myself.”

“Why? Is Ma—”

“Just please let me do it. I’ll explain when I see you.”

Next I called Jane Nomee, a weaver of great skill and the reigning gossip queen of the moccasin telegraph. Jane, a tall, strong woman in her sixties, lived in St. Ignatius, the nearest town to Elwood’s home.

The moccasin telegraph is a loosely linked group devoted to circulating information about all things Indian throughout the nation. Once, they claim, it operated on smoke signals—and maybe it did—but these days the Internet and smartphones transmit the necessary information. When anything noteworthy occurred, Jane would be on the phone or e-mail to those who would spread the word far and wide. When I’d first visited the reserve I’d found her intimidating. Now that I knew her better she was just Jane the Reporter.

I asked her to spread the word about the attack on Elwood, but to caution everyone to keep it strictly among themselves. Jane, who is a devotee of TV crime shows, agreed to get moving on Elwood’s mishap. Soon, I was sure, the MT wires would be humming.

My most difficult call was to Will Camphouse in Tucson. He wasn’t a relative of mine in the white-world sense, but—as he often claimed—he was my symbolic cousin. Whatever, he was the closest friend I had in the Indian part of my family.

Will said, “I already know what happened. Robin just called me.”

Robin Blackhawk, my half sister who was in law school at Berkeley. Of course she knew; Saskia had probably phoned her to ask for a ride from SFO to SF General.

Will expressed the same anger and indignation that Saskia had, then asked, “You want me to come up there?”

“Not necessary—not yet.”

“Well, don’t hesitate to ask; I’ve just wrapped up a big campaign and have some time off coming.” He was creative director at a large Tucson ad agency.

I closed my eyes, picturing hordes of the descendants of Chief Tendoy—leader of the Lemhi Shoshone from 1863 until his death in 1907—eventually convening at the hospital and in the Marina district, lobbying for Indian rights. The Shoshone are normally a gentle people, skilled in coping with adversity and hostility, but they’ve been pushed around enough by white society and the US government to go into explosive mode when circumstances warrant it.

The rest of my calls were not so difficult: My adoptive brother John, who lived in a downtown high-rise here in the city, was fond of Elwood and my Indian family and said he’d be on call for anything they needed. My nephew Mick Savage, chief researcher at the agency, had learned of the attack on the morning news and put out a staff bulletin. Then calls began pouring in from friends whom they’d contacted. I’d had no idea how many people cared about me and mine.

Shortly after I finished speaking with the last well-wisher, a Sergeant Priscilla Anders from the SFPD assault division called and asked if she could come over and interview us about the attack. I agreed, did a quick spiff-up, and greeted her at the door.

Anders was an attractive woman of about sixty, wearing a conservative gray pantsuit to match her conservatively cut gray hair; a delicate silver necklace and matching bracelet were her only adornments. She showed me her identification and then followed me to the living room, where she accepted coffee from the pot Hy had just brewed and got right down to business.

“Your father normally resides where?” she asked me, snapping open a spiral-bound notebook.

“In St. Ignatius, Montana, on the Flathead Reservation.”

“He is here visiting for the holidays?”

“Yes. He arrived two days ago and intends to stay through the New Year.”

“I understand Mr. Farmer is in his eighties.”

“Eighty-two.” I told her his birth date.

“What does Mr. Farmer do in Montana? I assume he’s retired?”

“No, he isn’t. He’s a nationally known painter and also tutors in various schools in the vicinity of the reservation.”

Anders looked at her notes. I had the feeling she already knew most of the information I’d provided, but was checking for accuracy’s sake.

I asked, “Have you turned up anything on the perps yet?”

“No,” she replied with a frown. “Do you know if your father has any enemies?”

“In San Francisco? He’s only been here two days.”

“Someone who may have followed him from Montana?”

“That’s extremely doubtful. He’s a beloved figure throughout the state.”

“Could the attack have been directed at you or Mr. Ripinsky?” She nodded at Hy, who was sitting quietly in a chair near the fireplace. “Perhaps someone doing harm to your father-in-law as a way of harming you? Given the nature of your professions—private investigator and security services—you must have made a number of enemies.”

Hy said, “Well, yes. But I doubt our relationship to Elwood is widely known.”

“Are you sure of that?”

I said, “My father is a very private man. And my husband and I are as well, at least in our personal lives.”

“Yet professionally you seem to have garnered more than your fair share of publicity, both local and national.”

Hy moved restively—a caution not to give in to the emotional storm that he knew was building within me. To Anders he said, “My wife and I don’t seek out attention, Sergeant. Our aim, as simple as it may seem to others, is to effect positive solutions for our clients.”

“And I suppose these clients are always on the right side of the law?”

“Over the years, one or two who weren’t have slipped through our background checks. But we pride ourselves on being thorough, and in the unlikely event we find someone has misrepresented himself or herself to us, we have a clause in our contract that releases us from their employ. And”—he smiled wryly—“that allows us to keep all fees that have already been paid to us. That’s the point where the undesirables put down their pens and walk out.”

“Excuse me,” I said, “but what does all this have to do with the attack on my father? What is the SFPD doing in his case?”

Anders glanced at me, then looked away. “All we can. Mr. Ripinsky, have you represented some of these ‘undesirables’?”

“Yes, we have. A few. Our relationships with them ended badly for all concerned.”

Especially in our last major case that prompted the state and congressional hearings we’d been involved in for much of the past year. The hearings had concerned various individuals and corporations that, contrary to the public record, had committed crimes against the US during the violent times in Southeast Asia following the Vietnam War. When he fled the area, Hy had taken evidence from the charter service he’d worked for and turned it over to the CIA, but for years nothing had happened. When we decided to go public with the information, a number of highly placed and powerful people had fallen from grace; others had been convicted and were serving long sentences. Only two had escaped prosecution.

“And who are they specifically?” Anders asked.

“I can’t recall all their names offhand, I’m afraid,” Hy said. “And I don’t see any of them doing what was done to Elwood as a form of payback.”

“Ms. McCone?”

My back was up; Anders was following a standard routine of ignoring the female witness while catering to the male. All I said was, “Neither do I.”

“You think the assault was random, then?”

“Not necessarily, but all the surface evidence points that way.”

“A random attack in an affluent neighborhood upon an individual who didn’t look as if he belonged there.”

“An especially vicious attack,” I said. “Very possibly by someone motivated by racial hatred.”

Anders nodded as if I were a schoolkid who had given the right answer to a tricky question. “That would be my best guess as well, though it’s too early to rule out other possibilities.”

She stood up briskly, snapping her notebook shut. “I’ll leave you now, but I’ll want to talk with you tomorrow.”

“You’ll let us know right away if you come up with anything?”


I shut the door behind her and said to Hy, “Kind of a cold woman, huh?”


“Why, d’you think?”

“Could be many things.”

“Not racial prejudice. I can sniff that out instantly. Not because she resents our financial status; her clothing and jewelry tell me she uses what she earns well.”

“Could be that she doesn’t like dealing with a firm like M&R.”

M&R: McCone & Ripinsky. A few years ago we’d merged my investigative agency and his international executive protection firm into one entity. So far the merger had been successful, despite a number of snags along the way.

Hy went on, “We’ve snatched the solutions to prized investigations out of the SFPD’s hands a few times.”

Alex the cat entered the room, his tail switching, and sniffed the place where the inspector had been sitting.


  • "One of the world's premier mystery writers."—Cleveland Plain Dealer
  • "Her stories crackle like few others on the mystery landscape."—San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle
  • "If you are ever in trouble, you want [Sharon McCone] to have your back. Fans will enjoy cruising the city's streets with her once again."—Booklist
  • "The Night Searchers [has] the clean, classic moves of her earliest novels...[Muller] is never better than when she's roaming the streets of the city she knows and loves so well."—New York Times Book Review on The Night Searchers
  • "Absorbing...McCone's daring and smarts make her an irresistible heroine. The brisk narrative vividly evokes contemporary San Francisco."—Publishers Weekly on The Night Searchers
  • "A plot so imaginative that readers will have no choice but to sit down and settle in for an exciting read they will not forget...The action never slows down, as the two investigators and their employees find themselves dead center in the middle of a truly bizarre group of folks that the reader will never forget. This is a definite keeper!"—Suspense Magazine on The Night Searchers
  • "Muller has displayed a knack both for keeping the series fresh and for allowing her character to grow....Muller's series remains a gold standard for female detective stories."—Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review on Locked In
  • "Muller has created a delicious mixture of adventure, action, altruism, pathos with a touch of humor, and romance thrown in to build a massive base of loyal fans . . . She is one of those rare series authors who never lets her characters grow stale or trite."—
  • "Muller undoubtedly remains one of today's best mystery writers."—Associated Press

On Sale
Apr 24, 2018
Page Count
304 pages

Marcia Muller

About the Author

Marcia Muller has written many novels and short stories. She has won six Anthony Awards, a Shamus Award, and is also the recipient of the Private Eye Writers of America's Lifetime Achievement Award as well as the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award (their highest accolade). She lives in northern California with her husband, mystery writer Bill Pronzini.

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