By Joanna Campbell Slan
From the press packet —
The Treasure Chest Philosophy: Even the humblest items (aka “trash”), despite their origins or their prior usage, have value.
7:45 a.m. on Thursday
The Treasure Chest in downtown Stuart, Florida
“We’ve got a problem,” said Detective Lou Murray, of the Stuart Police Department. His bulk filled the threshold of the back door to my store, The Treasure Chest. With the bright sun behind him, I couldn’t see his expression, but the tone of his voice was ominous.
“What’s up, Lou?”
The big cop has gotten into the habit of dropping by most mornings. He claims this is part of an initiative to make police presence more visual in our picturesque downtown.
But I know better.
Lou is head over heels in love with Skye Blue, my friend and part-time employee. She’s also my tenant, renting one of the two apartments upstairs, while I live in the other, its mirror-image twin. I glanced over to see that Skye was busy in the sink, bonking around a couple of mugs and the water carafe for the coffee maker.
Drying her hands, Skye hugged me. “How’d you sleep?”
I did a so-so motion with my fingers.
“Cara? I need ten minutes of your time,” said Lou. As he spoke, he only glanced at me. He kept looking out the window of my back door.
“Right now? My dog needs to go outside, and I haven’t had my morning jolt of java. I am not fully human until I have my coffee.”
“Right now,” said Lou, firmly. “I need you to look at a car parked behind your grandfather’s gas station.”
“Let me guess. Today’s the day they start jackhammering that old pavement around the Gas E Bait, right? And the car is in the way? Just tow it,” I said. “That’ll teach the owner a lesson.”
“Not that simple.” Lou frowned as he ran a hand through his cropped hair.
“I’ll take Jack,” said Skye, reaching for my rescue pup and tucking the white Chihuahua under her arm. She, Lou, and I had made it to the back stoop when MJ Austin pulled up in her pink Cadillac.
“Morning,” said MJ. She is a full-time employee of The Treasure Chest, a real find because she used to work for the previous owner.
“Good morning,” I said to her. “Lou wants me to take a gander at the car parked behind Poppy’s gas station.”
“Shouldn’t be there,” said MJ.
“Right,” Lou muttered.
We had just crossed the alley that separates the parking spaces behind my store from the parking spaces behind the gas station when a truck pulled up, a black Ford F150. A tall man in an orange tee shirt stepped out of it. Sunlight glinted gold on his hair, a long surfer cut that brushed his collar. His eyes were a mystery behind his Wayfarer sunglasses. He glanced at us and then toward the parked Toyota.
“And you are?” Lou asked the newcomer.
“Jason Robbins. Project manager for Fill Up and Go corporate.”
“Detective Lou Murray and this is Cara Mia Delgatto,” said Lou, flashing his badge. Skye and MJ hung back a few paces.
“You’re exactly as your grandfather described you,” Jason said to me. He smelled of sandalwood and soap as he shook my hand.
“Cara, have you ever seen this car before?” Lou asked, as he used his hand to shade his eyes against the morning sun. “Take your time looking it over. But don’t touch it.”
I stared at a rusty Toyota with balding tires.
“Why don’t you just run the plates?” I wondered.
“Answer my question, please,” said Lou.
The vehicle looked familiar. I took two steps to the left, blinked in the glare of the sunlight, and looked closer. The giveaway was a dog-earred paper sign sitting in the back window. It said SHORELINE NEWS.
“I’m pretty sure that car belongs to Kathy Simmons. She’s a reporter for the Shoreline News. Her roommate has been calling the store for three days. She says Kathy’s been missing. Is that true?”
Lou didn’t answer my question. Instead, he frowned. “Anything else that helps you identify the owner?”
I moved even with the rear passenger door. A rotten breeze had kicked up from the ocean. A lot of dead fish must have rolled up with the tide.
Cupping my hands over my face to block out the bright light, I stared inside the car. A plastic food storage container rested on the back passenger seat. Next to it was a white shopping bag.
"That's definitely one of my new shopping bags," I called over my shoulder to Lou. Skye and MJ stood a few feet away from him. MJ had her arms crossed over her chest. Skye was shuffling her feet. Neither looked happy.
I continued, "Kathy bought a picture from me the night of our media event. I put her purchase inside a bag like that one. MJ packed up leftovers for Kathy to take home. The container looked like the one on the seat. It was late at night and raining when I walked Kathy to her car, so I didn’t get a really good look, but I’m almost positive this is her vehicle.”
“Let me make sure I’ve got this straight,” said Lou, and his frown deepened. “Four days ago, Kathy Simmons attended your media event.”
“Right. We invited all members of the local media to come and preview our Old Florida Photo Gallery exhibit. Served them food. Gave them press packets. Let them wander around the store. Answered their questions. Kathy Simmons came on behalf of the Shoreline News. Her editor came too, but he left early.”
“Had you ever met her before?”
“Tell me about the event,” said Lou.
“It started at seven in the evening and ended at eight. A dozen reporters came. I gave a little spiel about our mission to recycle things and be creative with found objects. I showed them old black and white photos we’d framed and mounted in refurbished frames. The three of us—MJ, Skye, and I—played hostess.”
“What was Kathy Simmons wearing?”
That was easy. “A weird vinyl raincoat printed like newspapers. Oh, and a headscarf. Before we went outside, she pulled the scarf out of her pocket to cover her hair. It was raining on Monday night.”
“What else can you tell me?” he asked in a serious tone. “What happened immediately before you two walked to her car?”
“What do you mean?” I couldn’t hide my surprise.
“Is it true there was an altercation?”
“W-w-what? How do you know that?” My mouth went dry.
Skye was studying the pavement. Her shoulders slumped in defeat.
“Let me summarize,” said Lou. “You had an event for reporters. Kathy Simmons came. You two had words. You walked her to her car—and now she’s been missing for three days. Is that right? Today her car shows up in a space behind your grandfather’s gas station.”
“U-u-uh,” I stuttered, trying to think of what to say.
Skye shook her head sadly. She mouthed one word at me, “Sorry.”
MJ rolled her eyes. “Cara, quit answering his questions and call a lawyer.”
“Y-y-you can’t seriously be suggesting that I had anything to do with Kathy’s disappearance!” I looked from Lou to the Toyota and back to him. “You’ve found her car. She has to be around here somewhere.”
“Maybe,” said Lou.
Jason crossed his arms over his chest and studied me solemnly.
“Ladies, go back to your store,” said Lou. “Cara, I’ll talk to you later.”
“Why? First you drag me out here. Then you accuse me. Now you want me to go inside and wait? I am not your puppet, Lou.”
There it was, the terrible temper that’s gotten me in trouble my whole life. I should have turned around and left Lou to it. But after the grilling he’d given me, the last thing I wanted was to follow his suggestion.
Lou reached inside the pocket of his navy blue blazer for a pair of latex gloves. “Have it your way.”
The detective moved closer to the trunk. The top was slightly ajar; the locking mechanism hadn’t caught.
Pulling an ink pen from his pocket, Lou tucked it under the hood of the trunk and lifted. It opened with a squeal of surrender. A foul stench rolled out.
Involuntarily, Lou took a step backwards. When he moved, I could see inside the trunk.
Kathy Simmons stared at me with dull, dead eyes.
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