Poisoned Prose (A Books by the Bay Mystery) (7 page)

BOOK: Poisoned Prose (A Books by the Bay Mystery)
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“Moonshine?” Olivia interrupted. “And had you?”

“Not until later, after the men went out to collect Hicks’s body. They called the cops, but it took them ages to come, and I was pretty far gone by the time they showed up.” He laced his hands together and stared at his palms. “Our footprints were gone by then, too. It was like we’d never been there at all.”

Olivia considered the implications of the snowfall. “So if the shape had been a real person, his tracks would have been covered as well.”

“It wasn’t flesh and blood, I tell you.” Lowell’s voice was a low and angry rumble. “You could see the tree branches right through it.”

“No wonder you can’t sleep,” Dixie whispered. “But that thing belongs to the mountains. You told me that it looked like someone strangled Violetta. It takes a strong person to do that, Lowell. Not a ghost.”

“Then where’d he come from? Her killer?” Lowell challenged. “I was only outside loading the car for a few minutes, and when I went in to get the last of our stuff, that’s when I saw her.”

“Did you hear voices?” Olivia asked. “Any signs of an argument or a physical struggle?”

Lowell shook his head. “I closed the door behind me each time. Violetta didn’t care for surprise visitors, and it was my job to make sure no one got near her.”

His failure to protect Violetta hung in the air. Olivia wanted to be convinced by the shame she saw in his eyes, but she wasn’t willing to trust him completely. He’d have to tell her the truth about the treasure first.

“She pointed at someone in the audience at the beginning of her performance,” Olivia said, unable to look at Dixie. “Did you recognize anyone in the crowd?”

“Most of the other well-known North Carolina storytellers were there. They always came to watch her, to see what made her the best. Other than them, I only knew Dixie and Grumpy.”

Olivia allowed herself to relax. “But Violetta didn’t know the Weavers, so she could have been gesturing at a fellow storyteller or another resident of Oyster Bay.”

At that moment, Grumpy opened the door to the doublewide and jogged down the warped wooden steps. He was shirtless and barefoot, and carried a bulging garbage bag in each hand.

“Olivia.” He dipped his chin in greeting and then disappeared around the back of his house. Haviland rose, stretched, and followed Grumpy, undoubtedly hoping he’d be offered something to eat.

Lowell watched the poodle until he was gone from view and then turned to Olivia. “Violetta never met Dixie, but she knows Grumpy. At least she used to.”

Olivia was stunned into silence.

“It’s no big thing,” Dixie was quick to add. “His family lived in the next town from hers. They went to the same church growin’ up. But he joined the army at nineteen and didn’t go back to visit much. She might have known him when he was a boy, but that’s all.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this before?” Olivia asked.

“I didn’t know,” Dixie mumbled. “Not ’til we got to the show. Grumpy said somethin’ about how long it had been since he’d seen Violetta. You know I get jealous right quick, so he didn’t say anything about it until we pulled into the library lot. That’s why we were late. I was askin’ him all about her, but he didn’t have much to say, and we had a bit of a fight.”

Olivia nodded. “Okay, but the chief needs to know these details. And Lowell? For what it’s worth, I don’t think you’re responsible for Violetta’s death.”

“I told you—” Dixie began.

“But I know you’re not telling me the whole story either. If someone’s after you, there has to be a reason why.” She spoke as gently as she could, leaning toward Lowell in a conspiratorial manner. “What would motivate someone to track you down? Revenge? Blackmail? Do you possess valuable information?” Lowell’s face immediately closed off, and Olivia raised her hands in surrender. “You don’t have to confide in me. Just trust me when I say that Chief Rawlings is a good man. He won’t string you up because you ran. He will listen without passing judgment.”

Lowell laughed derisively. “I’m not going to tell some cop that I’m being hunted. Or what I saw the night Hicks died. I’m not talking to anyone. I’m done talking.” He turned to Dixie, his fists clenched in anger. “I could have been miles away by now.”

While he’d been speaking, Grumpy had reemerged from around the corner of the house and come up behind their group of chairs. He towered over Lowell, his long shadow falling across the dwarf’s face. “You owe Violetta,” he said simply. “She took a chance on you. Now you’ve got to repay her by doing what you can to help find her killer. You know who her friends are. Who her enemies are. No one else here does. Call the chief. And if you don’t, I will.”

Lowell shot Dixie a dirty look, and Grumpy stepped in front of his wife. “Don’t go making this about Dixie. You owe Violetta, Lowell. Now do what needs to be done.”

Olivia had never heard Grumpy string that many sentences together at once. He stood, his muscular arms crossed over his chest, his bare skin glistening with sweat, and glowered at Lowell. To Olivia, he looked like a tattooed Goliath.

“When they toss me back in the slammer, it’s on you,” Lowell snapped, slid off his chair, and waddled away.

Without another word, Grumpy walked off in the opposite direction, leaving Olivia and Dixie alone.

“I don’t think I made things any easier,” Olivia said by way of apology. “And to be honest, I’m concerned about what happened to Hicks. If he was murdered because of some connection he had to Violetta Devereaux, then Lowell’s fears might be justified. Though she was not strangled by a ghost.”

Dixie looked miserable. “I can’t have ghosts or killers ’round my kids. Much as I’d like to smother them half the time, I don’t want them in danger because Lowell’s here.”

Olivia took her car keys out of her purse and shook them. In response, Haviland appeared from the far corner of the yard, a tennis ball clamped between his teeth. He dropped it at Olivia’s feet, panting and smiling. She tossed it for him and he raced off, a blur of black against the brown and yellow grass. “I’ll drive Lowell to the station. In the meantime, put your dogs on long leads and make sure your guns are loaded.”

Dixie managed a tight smile. “What good’s a rifle against a ghost?”

• • •

Rawlings called Olivia at five that afternoon and asked to meet her at The Boot Top’s bar. She was already at the restaurant, and having been subjected to one of Michel’s monologues on his girlfriend’s attributes, she was primed for a cocktail.

Gabe, The Boot Top’s bartender, served Olivia her drink a few moments before the chief sank into the leather club chair next to hers. Rawlings scooped up a handful of mixed nuts, chewed feverishly, and swallowed. “Sorry, but I’m starving. Had to skip lunch today.” He filled his palm with more nuts.

“Let me get you something.” Olivia signaled a passing waiter and placed an order. By the time she returned her attention to Rawlings, he’d emptied the bowl of cocktail nuts. “How are you?” she asked.

He smiled at her. “Now I know that you love me. You asked about me before the case.”

“Aren’t the two intertwined?”

He sighed. “I suppose they are. And I’m frustrated because this is a frustrating case. We have a hundred suspects and no obvious motive. The ME is supposed to report to me within the hour. He told me the cause of death was asphyxiation, but he wouldn’t elaborate. Said there was an abnormality he had to research before sharing his findings.”

Gabe approached their table carrying a glass of ice water in one hand and a platter of assorted cheese, olives, and sliced meat in his other. “I’ll be right back with some fresh bread.” Gabe smiled at the chief. “Would you like something else to drink?”

“No, thanks. I’m still on the clock.” Rawlings watched the bartender walk away. “That kid gets better looking every day.”

“He says it’s the surfing, but I think it’s because he’s young, sun-kissed, and content. Contentment is very attractive. It’s why every bar stool will be occupied tonight.”

The chief popped a wedge of Brie into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. “He’s sincere too. People respond to that. I’ve spent too many hours today with individuals who pretend for a living—who wear costumes and makeup, and can trick us into believing they feel something they don’t.”

“Are you referring to the storytellers?”

“It was exhausting to gather their statements.” Rawlings took a long drink of water. “They couldn’t give a straight answer. Every phrase was embellished. Every reply a soliloquy.”

Olivia helped herself to a square of Havarti with dill. “Were you able to track down all the attendees?”

Rawlings nodded. “For the most part. We drafted a seating chart while we were still in the library. Mrs. Fairchild showed us where she sat the VIPs, including you, my dear, and the rest of the guests helped identify their neighbors. We have a few more preliminary interviews to conduct, but they’ll be done by the end of the night.”

Gabe returned with warm bread and two servings of bacon-wrapped shrimp stuffed with basil and garlic.

“And what about Lowell?” Olivia speared a shrimp with her fork. “Were you satisfied with his story?”

The chief shook his head. “Not by a long shot. He could be playing me. While he told a convincing tale about being frightened, it’s not enough to distract me from what I consider to be very suspicious behavior. The bottom line is that he fled from a crime scene. For the moment, I’ve decided not to bring him up on charges for that, but only because he came to the station voluntarily. Though Lowell told me that you had a hand in getting him there. Well done.”

Olivia waved off the compliment. “Lowell genuinely believes that Alfred Hicks was murdered. I don’t know exactly what he saw, but it scared him, and he doesn’t seem the type to spook easily. I also think there’s more to this treasure business than a professor’s desire to publish Violetta’s stories.”

“I agree. I’ve requested a copy of the sheriff’s file on Hicks. And Laurel tells me she’s gathered a stack of background material on Violetta. I was hoping you and I could go through those papers after supper.”

Olivia couldn’t hide her pleasure in being asked to assist with the investigation. “How will I be compensated for my time?”

“I’ll pay my debts with physical labor.” He grinned.

The couple fell silent. They sipped their drinks, sampled the food, and watched the restaurant’s patrons. Olivia savored these quiet moments with Rawlings. He was the only person in the world with whom she could sit in comfortable silence for long periods of time.

A woman at the bar threw her head back and laughed loudly at something her male companion said. He whispered something into her ear, and she laughed again. Then he got up and headed to the restroom. Once he was out of sight, the smile slid from the woman’s face, and she glanced at her watch and frowned.

Olivia’s eyes met the chief’s, and she guessed that the woman’s performance had him thinking about the case again. “Why would anyone want to hurt a storyteller? The competition for performing tall tales can’t be that intense. People can win grants and stipends, but is that motivation enough for murder?”

“A grant changed Violetta’s life,” Rawlings pointed out. Then he gave a little jump and pulled his phone from his pocket. Glancing at the screen, he said, “It’s the ME. Be right back.”

He strode from the bar area and hustled outside. Gabe suddenly appeared at the table. “Another round?”

“I’d better not,” Olivia said. “I have a feeling I need to stay sharp tonight.”

When Rawlings returned, he wore a befuddled expression. “The ME believes the killer slipped a plastic bag over Violetta’s head and then wrapped a piece of fabric around the bag and pulled tight. After she asphyxiated, the killer removed the bag and took it with him. The line on her neck isn’t very deep, so the ME doesn’t think she was strangled with a sharp object. That rules out any kind of thin wire or rope, but it still leaves us with too many possibilities.”

Olivia thought back on the scene. “There was no sign of a struggle. If someone tried to kill me that way, I would have clawed at the plastic bag and kicked out with my legs. I don’t remember seeing scratches on Violetta’s neck.”

“No. She was still wearing her gloves and her hands were bound to the chair. There are faint lines on her wrists. Here’s the strange thing,” he began, and then paused and turned over his palms, gazing at them intently. “The ME said that it wasn’t just her face that had that bluish tint. Her hands and chest and legs were the same color. She was blue everywhere.”

Now Olivia was confused too. “What does that mean? Was it makeup? Body paint?”

Rawlings shook his head. “No. Her
skin
was blue. The ME thinks it’s a blood disorder, but he needs to run more tests.”

Olivia didn’t know what to make of this strange information. She mulled it over and then drew in a quick breath. “That’s what Lowell meant when he said Violetta knew what it felt like to be different. That was their bond. That’s why they understood each other so well.”

“The dwarf and the woman with the blue skin,” Rawlings said softly. “Two misfits.”

By this time, the bar had filled up with people. The Boot Top’s patrons sipped drinks, talked, and laughed. Olivia observed the attractive vacationers and handful of locals. She saw their stylish clothes and relaxed postures, their perfect white teeth and toned bodies, and she realized that not one of them had an ounce of Violetta’s charisma. Hers had been a presence too powerful to ignore. She could eclipse every woman in the room by uttering a single word.

“Have you ever heard of a blue star?” Olivia asked Rawlings. He shook his head. “A blue star is extremely large and very, very bright,” she said. “It burns quickly, and when it dies, it doesn’t shrink like other stars. It explodes, forming a supernova. The light it gives off is spectacular. And beautiful.”

Rawlings reached across the table and took Olivia’s hand. “We’ll give her justice. It’s the only thing we can offer her now.”

Olivia squeezed his fingers hard. “Then let’s get to work. I want to know her whole story. I want Laurel to be able to tell it when we’re done. That way, Violetta can shine again. If only for a little while.”

BOOK: Poisoned Prose (A Books by the Bay Mystery)
10.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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