I cleaned up the napkins, plates, and coffee cups, then grabbed a broom and began to sweep the floor of the cat lounge. I’d already taken back the cats I’d brought to display that day to Harthaven Cat Sanctuary, the cat rescue shelter my Aunt Maggie owns and operates and I help out with. Since opening the shelter several years ago, we’d rescued, rehabilitated, and placed over a hundred cats. It felt good to commit time to a cause that made such a huge difference in the lives not only of the cats we rescued but the families we adopted them out to.
“Look what I found at the front door,” Cody said as he walked into the bookstore with a soaking-wet cat in his arms.
“He was just sitting out there in the rain?”
“He was when I pulled up. He was scratching at the door, but you were next door in the lounge, so you couldn’t hear him.”
I grabbed a towel from a cabinet and wrapped the shivering orange cat up in it. There was still a fire in the fireplace in the reading area, so I sat in front of it with the cat and rubbed his fur until he began to both dry off and warm up. “You poor thing. Whatever are you doing out on a stormy night like this?”
The cat began to purr as I continued to rub him with the towel. “I wonder who he belongs to. I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen him around before.”
Cody shrugged. “He doesn’t look familiar. I’ll put a notice in the paper this week if his owner doesn’t come looking for him tomorrow.”
“I guess I’ll take him home tonight. Max and I are currently cat free, so it shouldn’t be a problem for him to stay with us for a few days if he needs to.”
Max was my dog, a sweet, affectionate Border collie. Occasionally we share our home with magical cats who pop into our lives long enough to help us solve whatever mystery we’re currently dealing with and move on once their task is done.
“You don’t suppose this is one of Tansy’s cats, do you?” I wondered.
Tansy is a local witch who lives and works in Pelican Bay with her life and business partner, Bella, also a witch. Or so everyone says. Neither woman has actually admitted as much, but they do seem to know things no mere human possibly could.
He shrugged. “I guess you can call her to ask.”
“Yeah, maybe I will.”
Cody finished sweeping while I made the call. Tansy told me that she hadn’t sent a cat, though she did sense there was a disturbance in the area that she felt might very well portend a murder. She asked if I could bring the cat by so she could get a better reading, and I promised Cody and I would stop by on our way home. Then I returned to the cat lounge to help Cody finish up.
“He seems to be warmed up and dried off,” I said, noticing the cat had begun to relax. “Why don’t you give him a saucer of milk while I finish up and then we can head home? Tansy wants us to stop by on the way so she can get a look at him.”
I picked up a rag to wipe the counter as a bright flash outside the window lit up the sky just a microsecond before a loud clap of thunder shook the building. The lights flickered and went out.
“On second thought,” I amended, “maybe I’ll finish cleaning up in the morning.”
Cody used the flashlight on his phone to illuminate the area directly around us. He suggested I ride home with him and he’d bring me back to the store in the morning. That sounded like a good idea to me; I really wasn’t looking forward to driving home in the pouring rain. I located one of the cat carriers we used to transport animals between the store and the shelter and settled the fluffy orange Halloween kitty inside.
“It looks like someone dropped something.” Cody bent over and picked up a small notebook with a leather cover.
“I think it must belong to Amanda Lowman.” I took the notebook from Cody and opened it to verify that it was the one I’d seen in Amanda’s possession. “She had a lot of stuff in her arms when she left; I bet she just dropped it. We can stop by the motel where she’s staying and drop it off on our way home.”
Cody handed me his phone so I could use the flashlight as we carried the cat and the notebook as well as my backpack out to his car. We settled the cat in the backseat, and Cody started the car so he could turn on the heater and the windshield wipers. Then he looked at me. “Do you want to return the notebook first or go by Tansy’s before that?”
“Let’s go by the motel. Amanda might be planning to turn in early and I don’t want to miss her.”
The place Amanda was staying was only about three minutes away, and while it was in the opposite direction from the house Tansy shared with Bella, it wasn’t all that far out of the way. The rain was coming down so hard that even with the windshield wipers on high it was difficult to see out the window, so Cody had to crawl along at a slow pace.
“How was your day?” I asked conversationally as we drove through the dark town.
“Good. I finally managed to track down the last of the people I needed to interview for my piece on the island council, and I got calls from several of the advertisers I reached out to about the special Halloween edition next Monday.”
“That’s good. I’m looking forward to that Halloween special edition. Maybe you should see if Amanda would be willing to do an interview about the book she’s working on. It’s going to be nice and Halloweenie.”
“Yeah, maybe I’ll ask her.” Cody slowed even further as he navigated a large puddle that had already formed in a low spot in the road. “If this rain doesn’t let up I’m going to have a soggy delivery route tomorrow.”
“Did you ever figure out who’s been stealing the newspapers out of the racks in town?”
“Not yet, but I’ve alerted all the merchants in the area to keep an eye out for the culprit. I can’t imagine what anyone would want with all those papers. Stealing them makes no sense.”
“It’s probably just kids trying to create mischief. The motel is just up here on the left. I remember Amanda commenting that she’s in room 113. She thought it was the perfect room for a stay on Halloween.”
Cody chuckled. “I guess it is at that.”
Cody pulled into the parking lot and, luckily, found a spot right in front of 113. The room was dark, but the motel, like the town, still had no electricity, so that didn’t mean anything.
“No use both of us getting wet. I’ll run up and drop off the notebook,” I offered. “You might as well leave the car running. I’ll only be a few minutes.”
I got out of the car, tucked the notebook in my jacket pocket so it wouldn’t get wet, and ran to the door as quickly as I could. The rain was really coming down and I didn’t want to get any wetter than I had to. The walkway in front of the door had an overhang from the second story, so once I made it there I was sheltered from the rain. I knocked on the door and waited. “Ms. Lowman,” I called as I knocked again. Still no answer.
I supposed I could just leave the notebook at the motel office, but I sort of hated to do that. Maybe I’d just leave a note telling her that I had the notebook and would return it the next day. I ran back to the car for my backpack, where I had a notepad and pen. I jotted down the note and then jogged back to the door to slip it underneath. When I knelt down with the note I noticed something on the ground just outside the door. It looked like blood.
“Ms. Lowman,” I called as I knocked again. I looked around the parking lot and saw the car she had been driving parked two spaces down. “Amanda,” I called again. I tried the knob, but the door was locked.
I went back to the car and told Cody about the blood, and he suggested we ask the desk clerk to open the room. I waited by the door while Cody headed over to the motel office to get a key. My stomach contracted in a painful manner as my mind played out the scene we were most likely walking in to. The blood in the doorway was fresh, and no matter how many scenarios I played out in my mind they all ended in the same terrifying way.
“The desk clerk was busy watching television on his iPad, but he gave me the key,” Cody informed me when he returned.
“He just gave you the key?”
Cody rolled his eyes. “It seemed the only thing he really cared about was not having his show interrupted.”
“Remind me never to recommend this place to anyone.”
Cody unlocked the door and we both walked in to find Amanda Lowman lying on her back on the floor at the foot of her bed. I ran over to her to feel for a pulse, then quickly used my cell, which was in my pocket, to call 911.
“How is it you know the victim?” The man from the sheriff’s office, who introduced himself as Deputy Holden, asked. Normally my future brother-in-law, Ryan Finnegan, would have responded to the 911 call, but he was attending a conference and wouldn’t be back on the island until Friday. The door to Amanda Lowman’s room was open, although we were standing, along with Cody, near the doorway, under the overhang. Deputy Holden had taken a look at the body and then draped a sheet over it, but the first responders who would remove the body hadn’t yet arrived.
“She was so pale. It looked like she’d lost a lot of blood,” I whispered. “I just saw her an hour ago. Who even knew she was here?” I guess I was still in shock because my thoughts seemed to be fluttering from one topic to another in no logical order.
“You said you saw the victim an hour ago. Again, how is it you know her?” the deputy repeated.
I glanced at the man, who I’d never met before. I knew the sheriff’s office had sent a substitute to fill in for Finn while he was away, but I hoped it would be someone I’d met in the past, not a brand-new transfer from out of the area.
“Amanda Lowman is a mystery writer. I own a bookstore: Coffee Cat Books. When I found out Ms. Lowman was going to be on the island I asked her if she would be willing to be a guest speaker at our book club this evening.”
“Do you know how long she’d been on Madrona Island?”
“Maybe a few days. Less than a week for certain. When I spoke to her on the phone a week ago she was still in New York.”
“Do you know if Ms. Lowman had plans with anyone this evening?”
“Not that she said.”
“Do you know if she had friends on the island or if she’d spent time with anyone other than your book club since she’d been on the island?”
“She mentioned she’d spoken to several people, but she didn’t say who they were. It’s a small island. I imagine someone knows who she spoke to; I guess you can just ask around.”
Deputy Holden paused before continuing. He had a look on his face that seemed to indicate to me that he was trying to make up his mind whether I was holding something back. “Did Ms. Lowman seem nervous or distracted when she was with you tonight?”
“You’re wondering if she knew she was in danger,” I realized. “No. She was animated and enthusiastic as she answered questions and discussed her latest project.”
“She was looking into the case of two teenage girls who were killed on Halloween night fifteen years ago. She was calling it the Vampire Murders.”
“So she was planning to write a book about those murders?”
“A fictional account. I’ve read a few of her books, and what she does is gather all the facts surrounding a real case and then she fictionalizes it. She changes the names of the people, as well as the location, and she also changes enough of the details to call it fiction, but she leaves the basic story intact so that readers are left with a sense of the authenticity of the event. She was really very good. Her books were the sort to grab you on the first page and keep you hanging on until the end.”
“Did Ms. Lowman say who she already might have spoken to regarding the case?”
I shook my head. “She didn’t share any of the specifics about her investigation. Who could have killed her? It looked like it could have been a vampire.”
“I’m sure it wasn’t a vampire who killed her,” Deputy Holden assured me.
“She had the marks.”
“Yes, well, I’m sure there’s an explanation for the puncture wounds that doesn’t include death by vampire bite.” The deputy paused as another car pulled up. “I have your contact information. I’ll be in touch if I have additional questions.”
With that, the deputy dismissed me and went back to the body.
“Should we call Tansy?” I asked Cody, who had come over to join me as soon as the deputy returned to the room.
“She called while you were speaking to the deputy. She tried your phone, but it went to voice mail, so she called me. She said a death had occurred and that the cat, whose name is Renfield, was here to help you.”
I thought about the cat that was still in the crate in the backseat. “How is Renfield connected to Amanda Lowman?”
“Tansy didn’t know. She sensed an especially dark energy surrounding the murder. It seems this negative energy is blocking her vibrations. She’s certain that’s why she wasn’t aware of the danger or the cat’s purpose when you called her earlier.”
I glanced back into the room. The deputy was squatting down beside the body. He seemed to be studying Amanda’s head, which he had turned slightly with one gloved hand. The frown on his face indicated to me that he was looking at something he found just a little unsettling.
“I know why everyone thought a vampire killed those kids all those years ago,” I began. “If I didn’t know better I’d swear Amanda Lowman was killed by a vampire. She was as white as a sheet and there were two little puncture wounds on her neck. The only difference is that I remember hearing that they didn’t find a lot of blood at the scene where the bodies of the teens were discovered, and there’s a whole lot of blood on the floor here.”
“I suppose someone who knew why Ms. Lowman was in town thought making her death look as if a vampire had done it was a clever thing to do.”
Cody looked down at his hand, which still held the key we’d used to open the door. “I guess we should drop this back by the office.”
I looked toward the entrance to the lobby. Even with all the commotion, the man who was working the counter hadn’t come out. “As long as we’re at it, let’s see if he knows anything.”
Cody and I walked over to the door leading into the lobby, which was only open until eight. We rang the bell for night service and waited for the man to let us in.
“Yeah?” he asked, a look of irritation on his face.
Cody held out the key. ‘I’m just returning this.”
The man opened the door further and accepted the key.
“I guess you know that the woman in room 113 was murdered,” I said.
The man looked toward the commotion at the opposite end of the parking lot. “That what all the ruckus is about?”
“Did you notice if the guest in room 113 had any visitors this evening?”
The man looked at Cody, “Just him.”
“We arrived after she was already dead. The killer would have had to have arrived at Ms. Lowman’s room somewhere between the time we arrived and an hour before. Did you notice anyone around? Anyone at all?”
The man snorted. “Didn’t see nothin’. Once my shows are on I lock the door to the lobby and head back to my room behind the registration area.”
“Did you hear anything?”
“Had Ms. Lowman had any visitors since she checked in?”
The man looked at me suspiciously. “You with the sheriff’s office?”
“No. Just a friend of hers.”
“I don’t think I should be talking to anyone who isn’t with the sheriff’s office.”
I didn’t have a comeback for that. It was true, in most cases witnesses should wait to tell what they knew to law enforcement personnel.
“Okay, well, thank you for your time.”
He closed the door and I turned to look at Cody. “So what now?”
“Let’s go home. We’ll get Renfield settled, build a fire, maybe make some hot cocoa, and come up with a plan.”
When we arrived on the peninsula, where I lived in a small cabin on my Aunt Maggie’s estate, I noticed that the lights in the various homes were on, indicating that the power outage had been limited to the town of Pelican Bay. Cody pulled up in front of my cabin as close to the side door as he could, allowing me to make a run inside before I got wetter than I already was. He followed with Renfield, who hopped up onto the sofa, curled into a small ball, and went to sleep as soon as Cody freed him from the crate.
I glanced over at the main house, which was completely dark. “It looks like Maggie is still out.” I’d gotten used to seeing lights on during the months when my sisters Siobhan and Cassidy, my brother Aiden, and our mother all had lived with her. Siobhan had moved in with Maggie a year ago, when she’d left her job in Seattle, and Mom, Aiden, and Cassie had moved into the house in June, after their house burned to the ground. It had been nice to have my family so close for a few weeks, until Siobhan moved in with Finn after they became engaged, Aiden rented a small house just up the coast, and Mom and Cassie had moved into a condo in Harthaven.
“Maybe you should change your clothes,” Cody suggested after I’d greeted Max and let him out for his nightly run. “You’re shivering.”
I was having a hard time warming up. Cody was a lot wetter than me and he seemed to be fine, but I decided to take his advice and head up to my bedroom, on the second floor of the cabin, to take a hot shower and change my clothes.
I tried to focus my mind on something other than Amanda Lowman’s empty stare as I lathered my hair with the pumpkin-scented shampoo I’d bought recently. I’d never met the woman before that night, although I’d spoken to her on the phone to nail down specifics for the book club appearance. She seemed nice enough, although I’d thought she had an odd way about her. When she was speaking to the book club tonight she’d been funny, articulate, and attentive, but when we’d talked on the phone she’d seemed much less interested in making the appearance, almost to the point of seeming secretive or perhaps just uninterested in what we were discussing.
I rinsed my hair and reached for the matching bottle of conditioner. It was certainly possible she was simply a lot more animated in person than on the phone. She could have been tired or having a bad day or any number of things when I’d called her. I wasn’t even sure why I was spending time thinking about the discrepancy. It wasn’t as if seeming bored and distracted during a phone call was a crime.
After rinsing the conditioner from my hair, I turned off the shower and wrapped myself in a large towel. I quickly slipped on a pair of flannel pajama bottoms and an extralarge sweatshirt I’d borrowed from Cody and then ended up keeping.
When I came downstairs Cody handed me a glass of wine and wrapped me up in a quilt in front of the fire.
“Do you think Amanda Lowman was killed because of the research she was doing for her book?” I asked after we settled in.
“I don’t know. Maybe. If she was looking into an old case and was getting close to something or someone, I suppose that could be a motive for murder.”
“I wish Finn was here. The fact that Renfield has arrived most likely is an indication that I’m supposed to help find the killer, but I don’t see that deputy sharing information with me.”
“When is Finn supposed to be back?”
“Not until Friday. In the meantime, I can ask around to see if anyone knows who she’d met with since she arrived on the island.” Suddenly I remembered the notebook we’d found at the bookstore. “The notebook…It’s still in my coat pocket. Maybe she left us a clue as to what might have occurred.”
“I’ll get it,” Cody offered.
I opened it as soon as Cody handed it to me. On the first page were six names: Tripp Brimmer, who was the resident deputy before Finn, and the one who would have investigatee the Vampire Murders; Orson Cobalter, who had sold the
Madrona Island News
to Cody before he passed away; Father Kilian, the priest at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church; Toby Willis, a local contractor who’d lived on the island his entire life and was probably about the right age to have been a classmate of the murdered students; Lisa Kellerman, a local who owned a boutique and likewise was probably the right age to have gone to high school with the murdered girls; and Conrad Quarterman, who worked at the market in Harthaven.
Tripp’s name, as well as Toby and Lisa’s, were checked off. There was a line through Orson’s name, which I assumed indicated that she’d found out he was no longer alive. There was a dash next to Father Kilian’s name and Conrad’s name was circled.
On the second page of the notebook were additional names, including Cody’s.
“Did Amanda Lowman try to get hold of you?” I asked.
“No, I hadn’t heard from her. I suppose I might be on her list because I bought the newspaper from Orson. She probably wanted to look through old editions of the paper dating back to the time of the murders.”
“Yeah, that makes sense.”
“Other than lists of names, what else is in the notebook?”
I thumbed through the pages. “It’s probably just notes, but she used some sort of shorthand. I recognize a few names and dates, but otherwise it looks like gibberish. If I have time later I’ll try to make sense of it.”
“I can understand that she’d want to protect the content of her investigation. I wonder if the notes are translated on her computer.”
“Unfortunately, with Finn away we most likely won’t be able to get access to the files on the computer.” I looked at Renfield, who was curled up on the sofa next to me. He didn’t appear to be at all concerned that our ability to investigate would be hindered by Finn’s absence, so I supposed I shouldn’t be either. “We should get the gang together tomorrow night. It’ll be a small group without Finn, but we can use all the help we can get.”