Somewhere along the way, we’d developed a sleuthing gang that consisted of Cody and me, Finn and Siobhan, and, at times, Tara and my other brother Danny. It had been Siobhan’s idea to use a murder board when we were researching a series of murders a year earlier and it had worked out so well we’d been using one ever since.
“I finished my last article for the midweek edition this evening while I was waiting for you to finish with book club. If everything goes according to plan, I should be able to get off a few minutes early tomorrow. I’ll pick up a couple of pizzas.”
“I meant to ask about the story you were working on regarding the house fire on the east shore the other night.”
A troubled look crossed Cody’s face. “It’s really a sad story. Are you sure you want to hear about it?”
Did I? I wasn’t really in the mood for a sad story, but now that I’d brought it up I wanted to hear the outcome. “Yeah. Tell me about it.”
“It looks like the fire was the result of an old heater with faulty wiring. An eighty-two-year-old man named Harland Jones lived in the house with his dog, Tuck. Jones had gone to bed and most likely would have perished in the fire if Tuck hadn’t woken him. The man is going to be fine physically, but he doesn’t have a lot of money and had let the insurance lapse on the house. It looks like he’s going to be homeless unless some good citizen comes forth and helps him work something out.”
“Homeless? Doesn’t he have any family?”
“Apparently not. He never married or had children, and of course his parents are long gone. I asked him about siblings, and he said he’d had a brother who passed away a few years ago. The church offered to pay for his accommodations until he could make long-term plans, but the apartment complex where they found him housing doesn’t allow pets, and Jones won’t go anywhere without his dog. I spoke to Father Kilian, who found a family willing to take him and Tuck in for a couple of days, but they aren’t in a position to help him out in the long run.”
“That’s so sad.” I’d already decided to pay a visit to Father Kilian the following day because his name was on Amanda Lowman’s list. Maybe I’d ask him about Mr. Jones to see if there was anything I could do to help. “If nothing else, I’m sure we can gather the troops and do some sort of a fund-raiser to help him get back on his feet.”
“I had a similar idea. The house he lived in was completely destroyed, but he does own the land the house sat on, so I’m sure he could get enough cash if he sold it to help him get started somewhere else.” Cody yawned. “It’s getting late and I’m pretty beat.”
“Are you staying tonight?” I asked.
Cody hesitated. “Do you want me to?”
“I always want you to.”
“Let me call Mr. Parsons. I hate for him to be alone. Especially in a storm.”
“Yeah, that’s a good idea. It is pretty bad out there. If he’s uncomfortable being alone we could go to your place, although it’s pretty cozy here.”
“I’ll call him. If he’s okay I’ll stay.”
One of the things I loved most about Cody was the way he took care of everyone. He had a huge heart that he at times wore on his sleeve, but the people in his life knew they could trust and depend on him. Cody had his own apartment on the third floor of Mr. Parsons’s mausoleum of a house. On the surface it seemed overly generous of Mr. Parsons to allow him to use the space; the reality was, Cody had made it his mission in life to take care of the old man, making certain he was as happy and comfortable as possible.
And Mr. Parsons had blossomed since Cody returned to the island. Before Cody left the Navy and moved home, Mr. Parsons had been a grumpy old man who spent most of his time alone in his house. I’d check in on him a couple of times a week, but I could never seem to penetrate his cranky demeanor. Now that Cody was a part of his life, Mr. Parsons had friends and a much better outlook.
“He said he’s fine,” Cody informed me after he hung up the phone. “He’s going off to bed and he assures me he won’t need me until morning, so I guess I’m all yours.”
I grinned. “Really? All mine?”
Cody pulled me into his arms. I kissed his neck and then whispered into his ear. He picked me up and headed up the stairs.
Cody was gone when I woke the next morning. There was a note by the coffeemaker, letting me know he’d gone home to shower and change and would be back later to pick me up to take me to the store because we’d left my car there. It was still sprinkling as I let Max out for his morning romp, but the wind that had battered the area, as well as the lightning, had passed.
I poured myself a cup of the coffee Cody had made before he left and then checked my phone for messages. There was a text from Siobhan, asking me to call her. I really should have called her the previous evening, but somehow I’d never gotten around to it.
“Hey, Siobhan; it’s Cait.”
“Oh, good. I’m glad we spoke before you left for the day. I heard about Amanda Lowman.”
Not only was Siobhan living with the deputy assigned to the island but she was the mayor, so she was usually in the loop with everything that went on.
“I’m sorry I didn’t call you. I was going to, but then it got late. Cody and I are hoping you can come over tonight for a murder board dinner party.”
“You know I’m in.”
“Has Finn heard about what happened?”
“He has. He’s going to call you on his lunch break. He did want me to warn you that the deputy who’s subbing for him is a by-the-books sort of guy who won’t welcome your involvement in the investigation, so he wants you to keep a low profile until he gets back.”
“I’ll be careful. I’m going to try to talk to Tripp today. I figure he must know what went on fifteen years ago, which might help point us in a direction.”
“You think Amanda Lowman’s death is related to the murders back then?”
I glanced out the window and watched as a large wave crashed onto the beach. “I think they might be related. She was on the island to investigate the murder of those two girls.”
“I remember those murders,” Siobhan said. “I was in the same graduating class as the girls who died. It was horrible.”
“So you knew the victims,” I realized.
“I knew Bronwyn really well; Ruby not as much. They were really different. They had different friends and different interests. I remember thinking it was odd that they both ended up in the same place at the same time.”
I saw Max running toward the cabin, so I opened the door to let him inside. He was soaking wet and I really should dry him off, but the fact that Siobhan knew the murder victims had sparked my interest considerably. “Do you remember having a theory as to who might have killed the girls at the time?”
“Finn and I discussed that very thing a while back, when we were watching a movie that reminded us of the murders. Finn thought about looking into the cold case, but I’m not sure he ever had time to do it. We were able to come up with the names of people who might have held a grudge against one girl or the other, but neither of us could think of a single person who would have had it in for both of them. There was a man, Dracon Moon, who everyone thought did it, but after thinking more about it, Finn and I came to the conclusion that he most likely wasn’t the killer. We can talk about it some more when we meet tonight.”
“Yeah, that’s a good idea. I really need to take a shower. Cody is coming back for me in less than an hour. We’ll go over everything any of us can remember tonight.”
“Okay. I’ll talk to you later. And be careful.”
After I hung up with Siobhan I headed upstairs to get ready for work. I had a feeling it was going to be a long day. I knew Tripp well enough to be aware he hadn’t been an early riser since he’d retired, so I planned to wait to set up an appointment with him until later that morning. Tara would most likely need my help first anyway. The coffee bar tended to be busy until close to noon.
“Can you grab some more large cups from the back?” Tara asked me later that morning. Even with the rain, the coffee bar had been packed all morning.
I finished ringing up the customer I was helping, then headed down the hall to the storage room. While most of the bookstore was graced with huge picture windows that brought beautiful scenery provided by the marina and the neighboring islands, the storage room had no windows and depended on an overhead light to keep it from being completely dark. I flicked on the light switch, then groaned when nothing happened. It was probably a burned-out bulb. Of course the bulbs were also in the storage room, so I’d need to get a flashlight to help me navigate the tight space filled almost to the ceiling with boxes of inventory and supplies.
I left the room and headed to the office. I remembered seeing a flashlight in the bottom drawer of the desk. When I entered the office I noticed that the light on the answering machine was flashing. I pressed the button and listened.
“Hi, my name is Rayleen Colby. I’m Amanda Lowman’s personal assistant. I’ve been trying to get hold of her since last night, but she isn’t answering her phone. I know she was speaking at your bookstore last evening and hoped she’d told her where she was staying. It’s important that I speak to her as soon as possible. My number is…” I listened while she rattled off a series of numbers.
Tara was still waiting for the cups, so I grabbed the flashlight and headed back down the hall. I’d find the cups, take them to Tara, go back to change the bulb, and then perhaps I’d return Rayleen Colby’s call. There was something about it that wasn’t sitting quite right with me. For one thing, wouldn’t a personal assistant know where her boss was staying? In fact, it seemed that booking a hotel room was exactly the kind of thing a PA would do.
I used the flashlight to locate the cups, then returned to the front of the store. I rang up several orders, allowing Tara to get caught up, before explaining about the message and the lightbulb and returning to the back to see to both. The deputy hadn’t told me to keep the fact of Amanda Lowman’s death quiet, so I supposed filling Rayleen in on the fate of her boss would be an acceptable thing to do. Still, I was hesitant.
Changing the bulb only took a minute, and once that was done I went back to the office and listened to the recording again. The woman sounded annoyed. I suppose that was a legitimate emotion if you’d been trying to locate your boss, who wasn’t calling you back. I wanted to return the call, but I wasn’t sure how much I should say. I supposed I could find out what she knew or—in this case maybe didn’t know was more to the point—and then make a decision from there about how much to reveal.
“Ms. Colby?” I asked when the woman answered the phone.
“This is Rayleen Colby.”
“This is Cait from Coffee Cat Books. I’m returning the call you left on our machine.”
She let out a long sigh. “Thank you so much for calling me back. I’ve been trying to get hold of Amanda since last night and she isn’t answering her phone or returning my messages. It really isn’t like her. I called the inn where I’d arranged for her to stay, but the woman I spoke to told me Amanda had canceled her reservation and she didn’t know where she’d ended up. I hoped you could help me.”
I hesitated. If Amanda Lowman had canceled the reservation her PA had made for her at the Pelican Bay Inn and instead had been staying in a dive motel without bothering to inform her, she must not have wanted Rayleen Colby to know where she was. Why would she do that?
“Do you think it odd that Ms. Lowman changed her lodging without telling you about it?”
The woman didn’t answer right away. I knew she was still on the line because I could hear her breathing. Finally, she said, “Yes, I think it’s odd, but Amanda has been acting strangely lately, so I guess I’m not surprised.”
“Distracted. There have been times when I’ve been speaking to her and she’s exhibited absolutely no emotion, even if the topic of the conversation was something that should have initiated an emotion of some sort. Then there’ve been other times when she seemed engaged and interested and a lot more like her old self.”
I remembered thinking the author had been a lot different on the phone when I’d arranged for her to come to the island than she had when she showed up last evening.
“Do you know where I can find her?” the assistant asked again.
“I’m not a hundred percent sure where she is at this very minute, but I’m pretty sure I can track her down this afternoon if it’s important to do so.” That much was true. I didn’t know where she was at that exact moment in time and I was fairly certain I could find out where they’d taken her body if I was so inclined. “Would you like me to pass a message along to her?”
“Please just tell her to call me. It’s very important. Tell her the suspicion she had about one of the people she went to speak to turned out to be true. She really could be in danger if she doesn’t know this.”
“What person? What suspicion?”
“I really shouldn’t say.”
“Look, I’m sorry. I haven’t been completely honest with you. I do know why she hasn’t returned your calls. She’s dead.”
“Oh, God,” Rayleen Colby groaned before she hung up.
I looked at the phone in my hand. We’d definitely been disconnected. I tried calling back, but the call went straight to voice mail.
“Strange,” I mumbled.
I hung up the phone and returned to the front of the store, which was completely empty by this point except for Tara, who was wiping down the counter. I filled her in on the conversation I’d just had.
“That is weird,” Tara agreed. “I wonder if there’s more going on here than we even suspect.”
“I don’t know.” I bit my lip. “I sure would like to know why Amanda Lowman canceled her reservation at the Inn and decided to stay at the motel instead. And I’d be even more interested to know why she hadn’t informed her PA of the change.”
“Yeah, and why did the PA hang up on you? It seems like an odd response even if you
just delivered disturbing news.”
“Hopefully she’ll call back after she has a chance to pull herself together. In the meantime, I’m going to go see Tripp if you can handle things around here.”
“I think the worst of the crowd has come and gone.”
“I shouldn’t be too long.”
Tripp lived on the water, just outside of Harthaven, in a house on a large lot with its own boat dock that had been in his family for three generations. He’d been retired for quite some time, but he definitely would have been the resident deputy at the time of the original Vampire Murders, so I hoped he’d have some insight as to what had occurred and how it might relate to the murder the previous evening. I’d called earlier to set up the appointment and fill him in on the fact that Finn was off the island until Friday.
Tripp opened the door and greeted me before I had a chance to ring the bell. “Right on time. Come on in. Can I get you some coffee?”
“No, I’ve had my limit. Thanks for seeing me.”
“Happy to help if I can.” Tripp indicated that I should sit down at the kitchen table, which I did. He sat down across from me. “Too bad about Finn being away with all this going on.”
“It does seem like it will complicate things.”
“What do you want to know?”
“I guess I’d like to start with an overview of what happened fifteen years ago. I can’t know for certain that Amanda Lowman’s murder is associated with the murder of those teenage girls, but she was in town to investigate that case, so I think it’s possible they’re related.”
He settled back in his chair and took a sip of his coffee before he began to speak. I really hoped he’d have some information that would make sense of this whole thing.
“In a nutshell, two teenagers, both sixteen and both students at Harthaven High School, were found dead in the woods after their parents reported them missing the morning after Halloween. One of the students, Bronwyn Hampton, had been at a party the previous evening, while the other, Ruby Collingsworth, had been in town, hanging out with friends. I was the resident deputy at the time, so I responded to the call. Based on the fact that both girls were killed on the same night and in the same manner, and both bodies were dumped in the same isolated part of the woods, I determined that there likely had been a single killer. The medical examiner later determined that this was most likely the case.”
“According to what I’ve heard, the killer was never identified.”
“It’s true I wasn’t able to uncover any physical evidence that would lead to the killer’s identity. At the time, I centered my investigation on finding a link between the two girls. Unfortunately, other than their age and the fact that they went to the same school, I couldn’t find a link of any sort. In fact, after interviewing their friends and teachers, I can honestly say there was a good chance the girls didn’t even know each other.”
“That’s hard to believe. This is a small island and Harthaven High School is an even smaller school.”
“Ruby Collingsworth had just moved to Madrona Island the previous summer and had only been attending Harthaven High School for two months. I learned she was having a hard time adapting and hadn’t made many friends.”
“I guess it’s hard to move in the middle of high school.”
“I’m sure it is, but there was more to it than that. Apparently she’d been kicked out of her old school for truancy and deviant behavior that included assaulting a teacher. She was put on probation and ordered to undergo counseling. The counselor suggested a change in environment, so her mother moved to the island in the hope of a fresh start. Based on what I discovered about Ruby, rather than using the opportunity to her advantage, she was heading down the same rabbit hole with a whole new group of troublemakers.”