Count Catula (Whales and Tails Cozy Mystery Book 9) (6 page)

“Yes, one would. Can you tell me anything else about Conrad?”

Rayleen let out a long sigh. “No. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t have any sort of a record and I didn’t find any other murders in the fifteen years since Ruby and Bronwyn died that might be associated with him.”

“Is there anything at all you can tell me that might help me with my own research?”

Rayleen paused. “I don’t know if this will help you, but as I indicated when we last spoke, Amanda was acting weird the last weeks of her life. She was really obsessed with this particular case. More so than any other one I’d ever helped her research. She was anxious and fidgety, and I could see she wasn’t eating or sleeping well. I don’t know why this particular case got to Amanda the way it did, but I do feel there was something more going on than just research for a book.”

I asked Rayleen how much research she had done on the case and she said that other than looking into Masterson very little. Amanda Lowman had kept her notes and her progress to herself. Rayleen had spent most of her time in the past few weeks researching another book entirely.

“Okay, well, thank you for speaking to me. I promise to keep you informed as we dig into things. Don’t hesitate to call me if you think of anything else.”

I hung up and found Renfield sitting next to the exterior door once again. He had that I-wanna-go-for-a-ride look about him. “We already had our adventure for the day.”

“Meow.” Renfield trotted over to the table and knocked the midweek edition of the
Madrona Island News
off the table. I’d picked it up when I’d been to the bookstore but hadn’t had a chance to read it yet.

“You want me to read it?”

“Meow.” Renfield went back to the door and waited.

Max was sitting in the middle of the floor, watching our exchange. I guess he’d caught on that Renfield wanted to go for another ride and didn’t want to be left out; he trotted over to the door and sat down next to the cat.

“We can’t go on another adventure,” I informed my furry companions. “Tara is waiting for me to come in to help her.”

Max stretched out with his head resting on his front paws and whined in an exhibit of defeat, but Renfield just stared at me, as if daring me to try to leave without him.

I looked down at the paper in my hand. “You want me to go to the newspaper?”

Max lifted his head and barked. I assumed the dog, who went to work with Cody on occasion, recognized the word
newspaper
and was showing his enthusiasm for the idea.

I looked down at the newspaper and tried to figure out what to do. Renfield did seem intent on taking me on another ride, but Tara was counting on me.

“If your reason for wanting me to go to the newspaper is to look something up, everything is online now. It’s one of the improvements Cody made when he bought it.”

That must have satisfied Renfield, who went over to the kitchen table where my laptop was sitting. I called Tara to tell her I’d be longer than expected, then pulled up the
Madrona Island News
Web site. Assuming Renfield wanted me to pull up the old stories about the murder, I put in a search for Bronwyn Hampton. I found a series of articles beginning the day after the discovery of the bodies. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, so I read them out loud, figuring Renfield would let me know when I stumbled across whatever it was he wanted me to find.

“‘Bronwyn Hampton and Ruby Collingsworth, both students at Harthaven High School, were found dead in the woods off Redlands Road,’” I began. I remembered that we’d driven on Redlands Road that morning to get to the property where I’d found the box. The spot where the bodies were found was most likely close to the one where I now assumed they’d been murdered.

I continued to read the article, which detailed what was known of the movements of the teenagers on the night they died. It outlined statements made by people who’d been with the girls on the night of their deaths, but no names were given. I assumed they’d been omitted due to the fact that the witnesses were minors.

The next article I came to covered the idea that Dracon Moon had been responsible for the deaths. It informed readers that the house had burned to the ground, so any evidence that might have existed there was most likely long gone. There was an all-points bulletin out for him, but as of the time the article was published, there’d been no sign of him.

I looked at Renfield as I read each article. He appeared to be listening but didn’t seem overly excited by any of the information I’d presented. “We don’t have all day, you know. This sure would be easier if you could talk.”

Renfield hopped up onto the table and pushed today’s paper onto the floor. He used his paw to turn the pages until he found the one he was looking for. I got up and looked at the page he was displaying.

“The obituaries? You want me to pull up the obituaries for Bronwyn and Ruby?”

Renfield jumped back onto the table and sat down next to the laptop. I pulled up Bronwyn ’s obituary first. It stated how and when she’d died, her accomplishments during her short life, the awards she’d won, and the potential that had been stolen from both Bronwyn and the world. The obituary ended by listing the people who survived her, including her mother, father, and two sisters.

Renfield didn’t seem impressed.

Then I pulled up Ruby’s obituary, which was quite a bit shorter and quite a bit less grand. It simply stated how and when she’d died and who she’d been survived by, including her mother.

“This isn’t telling me anything important.”

“Meow.”

I looked at Renfield. It was frustrating that I couldn’t understand what he was trying to tell me. “Okay, meow once for yes and twice for no. Did you want me to look at the obituaries?”

“Meow.”

“Is the information you want me to find in either Bronwyn or Ruby’s obituary?”

“Meow, meow.”

“So you want me to look at someone else’s obituary?”

“Meow.”

I sat back in my chair. “I’m sorry; I’m stumped.”

Renfield swatted the piece of paper I’d been using to take notes as I spoke to Rayleen onto the floor.

“You want me to look up additional information about the killings in Kansas?”

“Meow.”

It took a few minutes, but I was able to find an article written by the local Kansas paper at the time of the murders in that state. The two victims were named Samantha Oberman and Loretta O’Malley. I looked up the obituaries for each of the victims. I was halfway through Loretta’s when I gasped. I read the passage out loud. “Loretta O’Malley was survived by her mother, Gayle O’Malley, and her half sister, Amanda Lowman. Oh my God. Amanda was Loretta’s half sister.”

I looked at Renfield, who I swear had a grin on his face.

“I’m not sure how this can help us track down the killer, but thank you for the information. Now, I really do need to get to work. Are we done for the morning?”

“Meow.”

“Good.” I shut down my computer, made sure Max and Renfield had plenty of food and water, and then headed into town to help Tara with what was left of the day.

 

“I’m so sorry,” I said to her as I hurried into the bookstore halfway through my shift.

“Don’t worry about it. It’s been slow. Did you find out what Renfield wanted?”

I filled Tara in.

“Wow. That’s huge. I wonder why Amanda Lowman didn’t mention the fact that her sister was killed in a similar murder at the book club meeting.”

“Maybe she didn’t want anyone on the island to know about the killings in Kansas. What seems odd to me is why she chose to investigate her sister’s murder now. She’s written seven books based on real events. You would think she would have wanted to do this one first.”

“Maybe she couldn’t,” Tara suggested.

“What do you mean, she couldn’t?”

“I don’t have any specifics, but maybe Lowman’s mother died recently, and she knew the book would have upset her when she was alive, or maybe she needed to wait until she was psychologically ready to tackle such a personal subject. There could be any number of reasons why she waited.”

I began assembling the ingredients to make myself a mocha while Tara and I chatted.

“I wonder if the fact that Amanda Lowman was related to Loretta O’Malley is a significant factor in her death.”

“I don’t know,” Tara mused, “but this case keeps getting more and more interesting. It’s like the more we know, the stranger it becomes.”

I poured the steamed milk into my cup. “I’m really looking forward to our sleuthing meeting tonight. Hopefully we’ll have enough facts to start pulling this mystery together.”

“Speaking of facts, Toby Willis returned your call. He said he’ll be at the Driftwood between one and two if you want to stop by to speak with him.” The Driftwood was a local café.

I glanced at Tara. It was already ten to one and I’d just arrived.

“Go ahead,” she said persuasively. “It’s a slow day. I’ll be fine.”

 

It was ten minutes after one by the time I arrived. Toby was sitting in a booth in the back, sipping a soda. I hadn’t eaten yet that day, so I picked a sandwich I figured would be a quick thing to order and something I could take with me if need be.

“So what do you want to know?” Toby asked. I’d already told him a bit about why I wanted to meet with him in the body of the message I’d left for him.

“I understand you knew both Bronwyn and Ruby.”

“Yeah, I knew them. I dated Bronwyn for a while, and Ruby and I became friends after she transferred to our school.”

“Were you with either girl on the night they died?”

I could see my question made Toby uncomfortable and wasn’t sure he was going to answer me, but he eventually did.

“I was with them both. Initially, I went to the party with Bronwyn. We’d dated the previous year and had broken up just before the summer, but we hooked up at homecoming and it seemed she might have wanted to give our relationship another try.”

“Did that cause a problem with Ruby?”

“Why would it cause a problem with her? We were just friends.”

“Okay, go on.”

Toby took a sip of his soda before he continued. “Bronwyn and I got into a fight because I wanted to have a beer. She didn’t like it when I drank, but I wanted to pound down a few, so I left the party and met up with Ruby and some of the kids she hung out with. They were having a much better time than the kids back at the party, so I joined them.”

“What do you mean, a better time?”

“They were drinking and egging houses. I think a few tires were slashed and a few homes were toilet papered as well. Nothing serious; just general vandalism and good old-fashioned fun.”

“I see. So at what point did you and Ruby part ways?”

“Bronwyn called me and sounded upset. She told me that she’d had a fight with her best friend, Lisa, and had left the party on foot. She asked me to come pick her up. I was having fun and didn’t really want to, but I also didn’t want anything to happen to Bronwyn, so I told her I would. When I arrived at the location Bronwyn had told me she would be, she wasn’t there. I waited for a while, but she never showed, so I went back into town to find Ruby and the others. When I located the kids Ruby had been hanging out with she was gone. I asked where she’d gone and one of the girls said she’d gotten a phone call and taken off. I never saw either Bronwyn or Ruby again.”

“Did you ever find out who’d called Ruby?”

“No. I was just a kid and the deputy in charge wasn’t inclined to fill me in on the specifics of the investigation.”

“Okay, thanks. And if you think of anything else call me.” I wrote my cell number on a napkin and left it for him.

I texted Siobhan to let her know we needed the phone records for both Ruby and Bronwyn. She texted back and said Finn was on it. I hoped he’d managed to get his hands on the phone records of both girls by the time the group met that night. I wanted to get this whole thing wrapped up sooner rather than later.

 

 

 

Chapter 6

 

 

After work, Cody picked me up at my cabin so we could drive to choir practice together. When my mom had first suggested I volunteer to run the church children’s choir I hadn’t liked the idea, but my decision to do it has turned out to be one of the best ones of my life.

“We’re all going to meet tonight to go over the case, so let’s talk about something else while we scarf down these burgers before heading to choir,” Cody suggested.

We’d gone through the drive-through of the local fast-food joint and were eating in the parking lot because we were strapped for time.

“Did you speak to Mr. Parsons about Harland Jones?” I asked.

“I did, in a roundabout sort of way. I explained that Harland was on the verge of having to rehome his dog if he didn’t find a place to stay that would allow animals and suggested that maybe he could stay with us until he gets back on his feet. I thought it best not to talk in terms of permanence until I saw how they got along. At first I thought Mr. Parsons was going to refuse, but then he said no man should be parted from his dog and agreed to let him stay with us on a temporary basis. Now I just need to talk to Harland, but I think he’ll go for it. He’s running out of options.”

“Who knows, this could be a perfect situation for both of them.”

“I hope so.”

“It would be good for Mr. Parsons to have a friend to watch old movies with when you aren’t home. I know Rambler provides a certain amount of companionship and having a pet is very important, but having a real, live person there would be better.”

“Speaking of pets, I ran into Ginny Portman today in the market. She was with her mother, who was buying baby food for her new little sister.”

Ginny Portman was a five-year-old whose family attended St. Patrick’s and liked to hang out in the choir room before Sunday services.

“How is she? I haven’t seen her for a few weeks.”

“It seems she came down with some sort of a virus that made her really sick. Her mom said she was even in the hospital for a few days while they ran tests.”

I dipped one of my fries in Cody’s ketchup. “I’m sorry to hear that. Poor thing. I take it she’s doing better now?”

“She is, although Mitzy, the family cat, passed away a few days ago and Ginny is devastated. I understand the cat was almost eighteen years old and died peacefully in her sleep, but she’s always been a part of Ginny’s life, so she’s having a hard time dealing with the loss. She asked if you had a gentle, affectionate cat at the sanctuary that might help to fill the void left by Mitzy.”

I thought about the cats that currently resided at the shelter. We’d been doing so well rehoming the cats we took in that most of those still living at the sanctuary were animals we’d deemed unadoptable for one reason or another. “I’m not sure,” I answered. “But I’ll talk to Aunt Maggie to see if she has a recommendation. She spends a lot more time with the cats than I do.”

Cody gathered our garbage and dumped it into the nearest trash can before starting his truck and pulling out of the parking lot. We were going to need to hurry if we were going to beat the first of the kids to the church. Hopefully Father Kilian was around to let them in if anyone got there before us.

When we arrived at the church Ginny Portman was sitting alone on the front stoop of the church.

“Where’s your mom?” I asked the small child, who looked like she had the weight of the world on her tiny shoulders.

“Talking to Father Kilian. They wanted to talk alone so they asked me to wait here.”

I frowned. I couldn’t believe either Father Kilian or Ginny’s mom would leave her alone. I was about to say so when I noticed the pair watching us from a distance.

“Would you like to come in with Cody and me?” I asked.

Ginny looked at her mom.

“Go ahead and go in with Cody and I’ll let your mom know what we’re doing.”

“Okay.”

Although Ginny’s mom could see her the entire time, I still felt it was unwise to leave a five-year-old sitting all alone and said as much when I spoke to her.

“I guess you’re right. I wanted to ask Father Kilian about dealing with Ginny’s depression since her cat passed away and didn’t want her to overhear what we were talking about.”

“Cody told me what happened. I’m very sorry for your loss.”

“I thought I’d be the one to take it the hardest, but Ginny has never suffered the loss of anyone in her life and she really doesn’t know how to process what’s happened. She thinks if she prays hard enough God will send Mitzy back to us. I don’t want to do or say anything to make her question the faith she has in God to answer prayers, but we both know that returning Mitzy to us is one prayer that isn’t going to be answered. At least in the way Ginny wants it to be.”

“Cody told me you were interested in finding a new cat for Ginny.”

“Yes, but only if it’s the right cat.”

“I’m not sure if we have a good match offhand, but I’ll talk to my Aunt Maggie and let you know. In the meantime, is it okay if Ginny stays for choir practice? She seems to love it and it might take her mind off Mitzy.”

Ginny’s mom hesitated. “I’d love for her to stay, but I have an appointment. I’m not sure I’ll be able to get back to the church to pick her up on time.”

“If you’d like you can leave her with us and Cody and I will take her back to my cabin if you’re late. You can just pick her up there.”

“That would be perfect. I should only be thirty minutes late at the most.”

 

I had to practically run after her car, but I just managed to catch Victoria Edmonds when she dropped off her two sons for choir practice.

“It looks like you’re in a hurry, but can we talk for just a couple of minutes?” I asked through the open driver’s side window.

“Is it about the kids?”

“No. It’s about Amanda Lowman.”

“The woman who died in that motel room?”

“She had a list of names. Yours was on it. I wondered if she’d met with you prior to her death.”

The woman frowned. “No. I’d never met her. Why would my name be on her list?”

“She was on the island to look into the death of Bronwyn Hampton and Ruby Collingsworth. She must have had reason to believe you might know something that could help her with her investigation.”

Victoria put her car in park and turned off the ignition. “Get in.”

I hurried around the car and slid into the passenger seat.

“I was friends with Bronwyn. In fact, I was at the party she went to the night she died. I don’t know what happened to her and I don’t have any information that can help lead to her killer, but I guess I can see why I might have been on the woman’s list if she was investigating Bronwyn’s death. Is she some kind of a cop?”

“A writer, actually. She was planning to write a novel based on the murders. I know you said you don’t know anything, but do you mind sharing what you remember about that night?”

Victoria leaned back in her seat. “It was Halloween. A bunch of us decided to have a party at Eric White’s house. I went with Matt Morrison, who was my boyfriend at the time. Matt and I didn’t date long—maybe a couple of months—but I was totally into him at the time and didn’t hang out with or even speak to anyone else. Matt and I spent the entire evening necking on the sofa.”

“But you do remember seeing Bronwyn at the party?”

“Yeah, she was there with Toby Willis. Thinking back, I’m not sure why they were there together. I seem to remember they’d broken up, but I guess they might have gotten back together.”

“Do you remember noticing either Toby or Bronwyn leave?”

“I think they got into a fight and Toby took off. Bronwyn split too, a little while later.”

“Did she leave with anyone?”

“Not that I noticed. It was a long time ago, I’d been drinking, and all I cared about back then was Matt. When the deputy came around the next day to ask me what I knew I felt bad that I couldn’t remember more. Maybe if I had been paying attention to what was going on around me I could have helped him find the killer.”

“You were young and you couldn’t have known what would happen. I wouldn’t beat yourself up about it. I appreciate your taking the time to talk to me.”

I opened the door to get out as Victoria reached out to start the vehicle. “You know,” she paused for a moment, “this might be nothing, but I do remember Bronwyn came dressed in this halter top without so much as a sweater. I noticed later in the evening that she had on Christopher Blackwell’s letter jacket. She still had it on when she left. I remember being surprised because Christopher was the sort of jock who valued his jacket above all else and was surprised when he let her wear it at the party. I was really amazed that he let her leave with it. In fact, I’d be surprised if she even had his permission to take it.”

“Do you think he would have gone after her if she left with the jacket without his permission?”

“Absolutely. Christopher was in love with that thing.” Victoria frowned.

“What is it?”

“I’ve never thought of this before, but Christopher had the jacket at school the next day. He must have met up with Bronwyn after she left. It’s odd that’s never occurred to me before.”

“Sometimes a minor detail can blow a case wide open. Thank you for sharing that with me.”

 

“That was so fun.” Ginny smiled as Cody and I drove her back to my cabin. Her solemn mood had lifted somewhat when I told her she could stay with us until her mother picked her up. “I can’t wait until I’m old enough to be in the choir.”

“You just have to be six, so you can sign up next year.”

“Who are all these cars for?” Ginny asked when we pulled into the drive in front of my cabin.

“My sister Siobhan, my brother Danny, and my friend Tara are visiting this evening.”

Ginny looked panicked. “Should I be here?”

“It’ll be fine. Your mom texted and said she’s on her way. I think you know everyone from church.”

Ginny still looked uncertain. “Maybe I should just wait on the stoop.”

“If you want to, I’ll wait with you. Max will want to come out anyway. You can help me walk him.”

When I opened the front door both Max and Renfield came trotting out.

“Mitzy!” Ginny dropped to her knees and hugged the cat, who immediately began to purr.

“No, this isn’t Mitzy. This is a boy cat named Renfield.”

Ginny didn’t look convinced, but she didn’t argue. She sat down on the wood deck and pulled the cat into her lap. Renfield was being sweet and patient with the little girl. He was definitely going to get an extra salmon treat tonight.

“Is Renfield your cat?” Ginny asked.

“Not really. He’s just staying with me for a while.”

“Whose cat is he?”

I hesitated. I didn’t want to say I didn’t know because Renfield might very well have a family to return to. Some of the cats who wandered into my life found their way home after they’d done what they had come to me for; others found new homes that seemed to be waiting just for them. I hoped Ginny and Renfield would end up together, but because I didn’t know for certain I just said I was keeping him for a friend.

When Ginny’s mom arrived she didn’t want to leave until I promised her she could come back to visit Renfield when I could work it out with her mom.

“She really latched onto that cat,” Cody commented after Ginny and her mom had left.

“Yeah. Ginny’s mom said Renfield looks exactly like Mitzy. Even she was confused when she first saw him. I never know where the cats who visit will end up in the end, but it would be wonderful if Renfield found a home with Ginny.”

“It definitely would. Let’s head inside and see what everyone found out since our last meeting.”

Siobhan, Danny, and Tara were chatting among themselves as Cody and I went into the cabin.

“Let’s get started,” Siobhan said, taking charge. “Finn is going to call when he gets free and we can dial him in again. I spoke to him earlier. He was able to pull the original sheriff’s report, which included phone records for Bronwyn and Ruby. On the night she died the last call Bronwyn made was to Toby Willis.” Siobhan looked at me. “Were you able to speak to him?”

I nodded. “He told me that he’d gone to the Halloween party with Bronwyn. They’d dated the previous spring, broke up over the summer, then hooked back up over homecoming. After they arrived at the party they had a fight. Apparently Bronwyn didn’t like it when Toby drank and he wanted to have a few beers, so he left and joined Ruby and her group in town. Later that evening Bronwyn called Toby to say she’d had a fight with her best friend and had left the party alone on foot. She asked Toby to pick her up and they arranged a place to meet. She wasn’t there when he got there. He waited for her for a while, but when she didn’t show he went back into town to look for Ruby. She wasn’t with them when he found her friends; they said she’d gotten a call and taken off. No one knew where she’d gone.”

“Do we know who called Ruby?” Cody asked Siobhan.

“According to Tripp’s report, the last call made to Ruby’s cell phone was from Toby Willis.”

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