“Do you want to buy a jewelry box?”
A little girl stood in the open door of I Saw It First, the shop that Christy Castleman and her aunt Bobbie Bodine had recently opened. Sunlight bounced off the girl’s long blond hair, forming a gauzy halo that lit her face and exaggerated the wisdom and sorrow in her green eyes. She wore jeans too short, shoes too scuffed, and a sweatshirt too big for her, the living definition of the word waif.
Gripping a small brown chest with slim hands, she glanced back at the sign in the calico-framed window that read “We buy, We sell, We trade.”
“Come in,” Christy called. A breeze rolled in from the Gulf to ruffle the vintage parasols decorating a cast-iron hall tree beside the door.
The little girl stepped in, then hesitated. Christy could imagine a budding beauty, but today she read only sadness and fear in the girl’s small, delicate features. Her face looked too pale for a child who should be out riding a bike or playing at the beach.
“My name’s Christy Castleman.” She crossed the polished wood floor to close the door. “What’s your name?”
“Zeffie Adams,” the girl answered in a clear, firm voice despite the indecision on her face.
“I’m glad to meet you, Zeffie.”
Christy looked at the scarred mahogany jewelry box Zeffie hugged. It appeared similar to others she had seen at discount stores, though less valuable because of a tiny dark stain on its lid. “Does the jewelry box belong to you?” Christy asked.
“Yes ma’am. I need to sell it.” She lifted the lid. “It plays music.”
Christy recognized an old, melancholy love song and bent to examine the box. The top compartment was made of three small sections for earrings or broaches. The red suede lining smelled musty and old, and in one corner the fabric had been Scotch-taped together. Two narrow drawers completed the box.
“Nice,” Christy said, looking more closely at the little girl. She thought she had seen her with a thin, gray-haired woman at the market, but she didn’t recognize the name Adams. “May I see it?”
Zeffie studied Christy’s blue eyes, then slowly extended the box. Christy smiled, took the box, and headed toward the counter. “Come on over,” she called, glancing back. Zeffie looked her up and down.
Christy’s small frame would not be intimidating, but ever since she’d begun her association with her long-lost aunt, she wore more jewelry, dressed with flair, and arranged shell or antique combs in her long brown hair. Zeffie’s eyes followed the swish of Christy’s skirt, a frothy autumn print, matched with a gold camisole and a crimson cardigan. “I’d rather be wearing my jeans and sweatshirt,” she said, winking at Zeffie.
“But your clothes are so pretty,” Zeffie blurted, dropping her guard. Her gaze swept the shop again. “I like pretty things.”
“So do I. What we like to do here is rework something that’s lost its purpose and make it pretty again. Most of the things you see here are castoffs, things other people no longer wanted or tossed aside as broken. My aunt repainted and repaired them. See that cupboard?”
She pointed to the red, crackled-paint cupboard, its door open to display a collection of mismatched plates and saucers. “She found it at a garage sale. It was an ugly brown, all scratched up, but she turned it into this.”
She swiveled and pointed at another object. “And this teacart was once a baby carriage that had lost its wheels. My aunt replaced the wheels and converted it into a teacart.”
Zeffie admired the English tea sets displayed on the glass top. “And over here,” Christy said, moving to stand near a scuffed trunk, “this came out of a warehouse near the docks. She rescued it, cleaned it up, and covered it with a quilt she purchased from a ninety-year-old quilter up in the Smokies.”
Zeffie looked at the crowded mix of ladder-back chairs, settees, armoires, and bistro sets. “What did you make?” she asked.
“Well,” Christy sighed, “you see the mirror framed with seashells? Those are shells I collected over the years and kept in a crystal vase at home. My aunt taught me to superglue them to the plain frame of the mirror. Other than that, I just wait on customers and run errands.”
Zeffie continued to stare at the contents of the shop, her mouth open in awe. Christy smiled.
“Come on, I’ll show you where she creates the magic.” She led Zeffie to the wide workroom in the back of the store that held a pegboard of tools, shelves of fabric and upholstery, and a bookcase overflowing with books and magazines covering every topic from crafts to flea markets to antiques. There were at least a dozen how-to books stacked on the top shelf.
“My aunt is great at refinishing furniture or upholstering chairs.” Christy pointed to a child’s rocking chair with a torn cushion centered on the long worktable. “She’s going to remove the torn fabric and cover the cushion with something new and pretty.”
“Maybe she could do that to the lining of my jewelry box.” Zeffie looked hopeful.
Christy knew Bobbie would have little use for the jewelry box, but this little girl had a refreshing dignity about her, rare in one so young. If she was determined to sell her jewelry box, then Christy would buy it for more than its worth.
“I love crafts,” Zeffie said, staring at one of the craft magazines.
“I’d like to learn how to make jewelry.”
“Maybe we could start a crafts class for kids.”
“That would be wonderful!” The sadness in Zeffie’s eyes when she first entered the shop disappeared, but then her smile faded. “You probably can’t do much with my jewelry box.”
Christy stared at her, unsure why the little girl and her words tugged at her heart. She fought an impulse to reach out, take Zeffie in her arms, and ask how she could make the sadness go away.
“I have an idea,” Christy said, leading the way back to the front room. “See that dress?” She pointed out the beaded cocktail dress displayed on a French chair.
Zeffie nodded, clasping her hands tightly before her. Christy wondered if she was fighting an impulse to touch the beads and sequins, which is what Christy would have done at Zeffie’s age.
“Well,” Christy continued, walking back to the counter where the jewelry box sat. “Maybe we can fix up your box and display some vintage jewelry in it on a table beside the dress. Do you have any jewelry in the drawers?”
“No. I moved it to a shoe box.”
Christy dropped her gaze, trying to conceal a rush of pity.
“Would you mind telling me why you’re selling this? We always ask our customers that question.”
Zeffie hesitated, twisting a corner of her sweatshirt. She stared at
Christy, her green eyes glittering like emeralds beneath the glow of a Tiffany lamp.
“Grandma is sick. She has lots of doctor’s bills. And that”–she looked at the jewelry box–“belonged to my mother. She left it the last time she took off.”
“Oh. Where is she now?” Christy knew she was overstepping polite boundaries, but the little girl fascinated her.
“She died years ago.” Zeffie spoke as though discussing a stranger.
“What about your dad?” Christy asked softly, pretending to study the jewelry box.
Zeffie shrugged. “We don’t know who he is.”
Christy felt a flush of embarrassment and wished she had not forced such terrible truths out of this troubled child. “Tell you what. I’ll take the jewelry box, if you’re sure you want to sell it.” She glanced across the counter at Zeffie.
“You didn’t say how much you want for it.”
“Is five dollars too much?” Zeffie asked. Her small hands bunched into fists at her side.
“You’re cheating yourself,” Christy replied, opening the box’s drawers to find more tattered lining. “Not all jewelry boxes play music, so that makes it worth at least ten dollars.” She closed the drawers and picked up the jewelry box to examine the bottom. The scuffed wood appeared to be real mahogany, not a cheap imitation. She had been wrong about it on first glance; at one time, many years ago, this had probably been a very nice jewelry box.
“And because the grain of wood is good,” she continued optimistically, “that’s worth another ten dollars.” She looked at Zeffie. “How does twenty dollars sound?” She’d buy it herself if no one else wanted it.
Zeffie’s hands relaxed at her sides, and a smile curved her lips, showing off the tiny dimple in her chin. “That sounds fine. That’ll pay for Grandma’s medicine.”
Christy frowned. “Doesn’t your grandmother have insurance?” Zeffie shook her head, the ends of her long blond hair swinging about her face. “All she has is Medicare and some help from welfare.”
“How old are you?” Christy asked, struck by the intelligence behind Zeffie’s words.
“Are you in third grade? Mrs. Ragland’s class?”
Zeffie nodded. “She’s nice.”
Christy removed two ten dollar bills from the cash register. “How about I send you home with some ice cream from the shop down the street? Maybe that would make your grandmother feel better.”
Zeffie backed away. “I can’t take things from strangers.”
Christy walked around the counter and pressed the bills in
Zeffie’s small hand. “Please don’t think of me as a stranger. I’d like to be your friend. I’m not married, and I don’t have any children. I don’t even have a niece.”
Her admission captured Zeffie’s attention. “Do you have a brother or sister?”
“A brother, Seth, but he’s away at Florida State and not married. So you see, I don’t have any little friends, and I’d like one. I hope you’ll come back to see me, Zeffie. Do you live near here?”
She nodded but volunteered nothing. “I’ll come back,” she said.
Her face lit up, and Christy caught her breath. The glow in Zeffie’s eyes and the bright smile transformed her into a beauty. “I like it here.”
“What about you, Zeffie? Do you have brothers and sisters?”
“No,” she said, turning toward the door.
“I might know your grandmother,” Christy said, keeping her tone light. “What’s her name?”
“Molly Adams.” Christy shook her head. “I guess I don’t know her. Thanks for stopping by, Zeffie. I’m usually here on Mondays and Fridays. If you come in after school on one of those days, we could walk down and get an ice cream cone, and I could show you what I’ve done with your jewelry box.” She looked at it perched on the counter by the cash register. “I imagine I’ll clean it up and put some new lining inside. It’ll be pretty, don’t you think?”
Zeffie nodded, casting a final glance at the box before thrusting the bills into her jeans pocket. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. If you need anything or have anything else to sell, let me know. I work at home part of the week. I’m a writer. Do you like to read?”
The green eyes lit up again. “I love to read! What kind of books do you write?”
“I write mysteries about pirates and treasure chests and stories I’ve heard over the years about Shipwreck Island.”
Zeffie looked as though she’d just met a celebrity.
“Anyway, my home phone number is listed in the telephone directory, and my name is Christy Castleman. Can you remember that? Oh!” Christy rolled her eyes. “What a silly question. Of course you’ll remember.”
“Yes, I’ll remember it, Miss Christy.” She opened the door and rushed out. Christy walked to the window and watched her hurry along the sidewalk, turn down Fourth Street, and disappear around the corner.
Christy mentally reviewed the street of middle-income homes. She knew everyone on that street, but she’d never heard of a Molly Adams. Two blocks down, a side street held smaller, cheaper rentals. She had a hunch this was where Zeffie and her grandmother lived. She turned away from the window and walked back to sit behind the counter. It had been a busy day, since the area was celebrating Veterans Day weekend. The Florida panhandle was heavily populated with veterans, especially around Bay County, home to active-duty air force, navy, and coast guard personnel and retirees.
The schools and some of the businesses had closed today to honor Saturday’s holiday, but she and Bobbie had been asked to remain open. A group of veterans’ wives were hosting a luncheon and a shopping spree, and they wanted to browse through I Saw It First. The annual Holly Fair was also this weekend, and Bobbie had taken several wreaths to display at their booth. She called earlier to say there were hundreds of shoppers at the boardwalk inspecting the Christmas-themed fair.
Her aunt loved those events, but while Christy enjoyed shopping, she didn’t care for large crowds. Between Veterans Weekend activities and the Holly Fair, minding the shop had been the easiest alternative for her.
She glanced at the clock, suddenly aware that for the first time all day she was alone in the shop. She sighed, then picked up her cold cup of tea and took a sip, her eyes on the jewelry box perched on the counter.
As soon as she’d finished off her tea, she picked up the box and took it back to the workroom. She placed it on the worktable and picked up a lemon oilcloth. She began to rub the mahogany box, smiling to herself as the grain of the wood responded with a shine.
She laid the rag aside and studied the huge array of tools on the pegboard, most of which baffled her. Unlike her aunt, she was clumsy with tools and made herself useful by knowing everyone in the area and helping sell some of the unique items in their shop. She’d seen her aunt use an X-Acto knife to remove linings before, so she reached for one. She couldn’t live with the soiled, musty-smelling fabric inside the drawers.
Lifting the lid, she positioned the knife at the edge of the lining and pried it away from the wood. It peeled away in chunks, but one tiny corner held stubbornly. Christy yanked harder, and the stained piece of cloth popped out. The top drawer was even tougher. But the lining in the bottom drawer came away easily, revealing a thin sheet of paper, yellow with age, lying flat against the wood. She picked up the worn paper, noting the name of a prominent jewelry store in Panama City stamped at the top, and realized it was a jewelry appraisal. On the first line she read the name Annabell Strickland.
Christy frowned at the familiar name, her heartbeat accelerating as her eyes moved to the next line. When she read the rural address in the community where her grandmother lived, she stared in shock.
Adjacent to Granny Castleman’s farm was Deerfield, the Strickland estate. Mrs. Annabell Strickland, a collector of expensive jewelry, had died of a heart attack in 1998. Soon afterward, her son Kirby had been murdered during a robbery at the Strickland mansion.
The criminal who took the jewelry and Kirby’s life had never been caught. The paper fluttered in Christy’s shaking hand, and she dropped it on the table, her mind spinning.
Whenever she thought of Kirby Strickland, she recalled that hot July Fourth in 1987 when she and Seth had visited Granny. She was eleven years old and overconfident of her new skill as a swimmer after a few lessons in summer day camp. Granny had taken them to a community picnic at the lake where everyone was swimming.
Eager to show off what she had learned, she dove into the cool water. Her confidence abandoned her with the same speed as her ability to float, and she began to flounder. When she went under the second time, gulping water, arms flailing, she felt panic overwhelm her, as cold and terrifying as the dark water.
Then, in the next second, strong arms enveloped her, lifting her to the surface. She blinked through wet lashes and focused on the kind blue eyes of Kirby Strickland. He smiled at her as his dark hair dripped lake water onto his tan shoulders.
“Hey, little girl,” he said. “Let’s go to shore.” With a protective arm around her shoulders, he steered her to safe ground. Having saved her life, he then salvaged her wounded pride by telling everyone she’d been doing okay and he’d just helped her a little.
Later, wrapped in a towel, her teeth chattering, Christy stared in adoration at seventeen-year-old Kirby, starting his senior year of high school. He grew taller in her mind’s eye, settling into the role of a hero as she replayed over and over how he had saved her. From that day on, she’d had a huge crush on him. In dreamy moments during her adolescence, she imagined being a sophisticated senior, attending football games and parties with Kirby, riding beside him in his white convertible. She swore that someday she’d do something to repay him, but that day never came.
Christy stared at the appraisal slip, swallowing a rush of tears. It was too late to save Kirby, but she could help find the monster who had robbed him, not just of heirloom jewels, but of his most precious gift–his life.
Tears blurred the small jewelry box as she turned to stare at it, struck dumb by the possibility of what she faced. Fresh horror flooded her senses, as cold and stark as the lake water so many years ago.
Whose blood-stained hands had touched this jewelry box? And how had it ended up in little Zeffie’s arms?
Excerpted from When Zeffie Got a Clue by Peggy Darty. Copyright © 2008 by Peggy Darty. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.