“I hate to end our meal with bad news, but…”
“What is it?” I laid my cookie down, awaiting her next words. Nobody moved during the long pause before Janell spoke.
“Someone murdered one of our guests.”
For a moment nobody spoke.
“Who?” I broke the silence although I admit I felt a flood of relief when I realized Janell’s bad news didn’t involve Rex or an illness. “Who? When did it happen? Where? Right here at The Poinsettia? That the reason for the empty rental? The closed café? Details, please. Details.”
“One question at a time, Kitt.” Janell gave a mirthless laugh “Abra Barrie. That’s the woman’s name.” Janell pursed her lips, looked down at her hands, and let Rex continue.
“Last Thursday she arrived in Key West on business and had booked one of our rooms. She’d seen our B&B ad on the Internet.
“A big Midwest corporation making wind turbines sent her here. They’re promoting their business and feeling out the Key West attitude concerning the use of off-shore wind machines to create a renewable source of energy.”
“Wind turbines? As in windmills like Iowa farmers sometimes use to pump water for livestock?”
“Yes,” Rex said, “only on a much more sophisticated level. Some of the commercial turbines are huge machines with blades longer than a football field—maybe longer than two or three football fields. But that’s beside the point right now. Abra Barrie flew here to speak at a City Commissioners meeting early Friday morning, and also to say a few words at a women’s club brunch later in the day. On Saturday, her schedule included a brief morning speech at the monthly meeting of the Power Boat Association and after that, she planned to take the afternoon off for a ride on the Conch Train and maybe enjoy more sightseeing during the weekend.”
“She had more meetings scheduled for Monday that included an important presentation at the naval station,” Janell said.
“And after that she planned to fly back to Nebraska.” Rex paused for a sip of tea.
“We liked what we saw of her on Thursday night,” Janell said. “She ate at our snack bar, visited with us and the combo musicians, and retired early.”
“As far as we know, she kept her Friday morning appointment,” Rex said. “I helped her get a taxi.”
“But she never kept her Saturday appointments,” Janell said. “She failed to return here after her Friday brunch meeting. We don’t keep tabs on our guests. They’re free to come and go as they please, but Abra told me she’d like to hear the combo again on Friday night—said she played the piano. I had told her that Mama Gomez might let her sit in for a set and she seemed pleased and excited about that.”
Rex broke in. “So when she didn’t show up here on Friday, as planned, I reported her absence to the police. They fluffed me off, said they’d keep an eye out for her, but that she’d probably just gone off somewhere on her own to do a little sightseeing. Chief Ramsey helps run the Power Boat meetings, and it wasn’t until Abra failed to appear for her Saturday morning speech for that group that he began to take my missing person report seriously.”
“But the police never found her,” I said, knowing I had stated the obvious.
“They found her body—late Saturday evening washed ashore, lying dead and mutilated on Smathers Beach.” Janell’s hand shook as she lifted her iced tea glass. “I knew when she failed to show up to hear the combo on Friday evening that something had happened to her. The Medical Examiner estimated the time of death as mid-afternoon on Friday. Here we were getting ready to open our patio café for the evening. I’d even mentioned to Mama G that Abra might want to sit in on piano for a few numbers. And all the time we were making plans for her, she was dead. Dead. It’s still like a bad dream. I can hardly believe it.”
“I suppose the police have searched your place thoroughly looking for clues and leads.”
“Right.” Rex scowled. “On Saturday night, they surrounded the place with crime scene tape even though her body wasn’t found here. Didn’t remove it until early this morning. Her parents flew in from Nebraska as soon as they heard the news. Even by flying, they couldn’t get here until yesterday afternoon. When the medical examiner and the police released her body, her parents made funeral arrangements.”
“I felt so sorry for them,” Janell said. “Their only daughter. Their only child. Life’s unfair. A young woman simply here doing her job, enjoying Key West—and now she’s gone.”
“Her room?” I asked.
“Her parents packed up her things. She traveled light. Not much there. I offered to help, but they didn’t want my help. Don’t blame them.”
Janell’s eyes began to tear and I broke in quickly. “So now the police are investigating her murder?”
“Right.” Rex pounded the table, making the tea glasses jump. “Investigating, now that it’s too late. If they’d listened to me in the first place…”
“Can’t blame you for feeling that way,” Janell said. “But Key West has so many attractions that might have caught her eye, pulled her off her planned course. I can understand police reluctance to begin an extensive search.”
“And now we’re all under suspicion,” Rex said. “All of us. Not you, of course, since you just arrived, but the rest of us.”
“You and Janell,” I said. “Who else?”
“Hella in the other rental, the three combo musicians, Phud, the yard man. All of us. Good thing you didn’t arrive early, Kitt, or they’d be fingerprinting you, too. Once they get started they’re very thorough.”
“They have any leads?”
“None that they’re revealing,” Janell said. “But I heard the chief muttering about a serial killer. South Florida’s had several unexplained murders in the last few years. The police think there may be a serial killer on the loose.”
“Hadn’t heard about that,” I said, “but lots of times big news in Florida doesn’t reach Iowa.”
“And you’ll probably never read anything about those murders in The Citizen, either.” Janell sighed. “They keep the bad stuff in small type on the back pages if they bother to publish it at all. Don’t want to scare off the tourists.”
“But news is news,” I said. “People need to know what’s going on in their community—or at least what the police think might be going on. They need any knowledge that will help them protect themselves. Where has this supposed serial killer struck?
“Fort Meyers Beach.” Rex began ticking the cities off on his fingers. “Miami, of course. Ft. Lauderdale. Stewart. Orlando. At this point, they’re not sure the same guy committed all the murders. But some of the mutilations were similar enough to make them think serial killer.”
Janell put a hand on his shoulder and shook her head to try to stop his words, but he continued.
“Breasts sliced off. Pubic hair shaved. Ears and eyes mutilated. Oh, he was a real sport.”
I shuddered. “You’re sure it was a he? Murder’s an equal opportunity employer. Could have been a woman.”
“Not likely.” Rex stood and began pacing the wide expanse of café floor. “Not at all likely. I don’t think a woman would have had the strength.”
“So if everyone connected with The Poinsettia is suspect, I want to meet those people. I want a good look at them. You plan to open the place to the public tomorrow tonight, right?”
“Right,” Janell said. “Had to close tonight. Didn’t know when the police would give permission or when they’d remove the crime scene tape. Hella’s here tonight, of course, but you can meet her tomorrow.”
“I’m surprised she hasn’t moved out,” Rex said. “We may have trouble keeping the inn rented for a while.”
“It’s not as if the woman was murdered in her room,” I said.
“No,” Janell agreed, “but there’s one more thing we haven’t told you yet.” Janell hesitated until Rex shrugged and nodded.
“Go ahead. She has to hear it sometime.”
Janell’s voice dropped so low I could hardly hear it.
“A small item appeared on a back page of today’s paper. The police announced they’ve found blood stains on Rex’s boat.”