A Nose for Crime
An Emma Twiggs Mystery
Emma Twiggs stood in front of QueBee’s linen display, weighing her options. The flowered cotton print was practical, but the pale peach satin sheet set had jumped into her hand of its own volition.
“Buy the cotton, Aunty,” James Galveston said. “Cotton suits you better.”
How could the nephew she’d raised from childhood be so clueless? “Not hardly, Jim. My night life demands satin.”
“I wish I could say the same.” Nancy Barnes, the third member of the staff of Galveston Investigations, smoothed a finger over the silk sheets. “Unfortunately, I’m the cotton floral type.”
“Too much information.” Jim shot his cuff and glanced at his designer watch. “This detour was supposed to be a quick stop, Aunt Emma. I have appointments this afternoon. Can’t you come back and buy your sheets after lunch?”
“Yes.” Emma put both packages back on the shelf. “Buying sheets isn’t the real reason I brought you here.”
“Then what is?”
A door sensor at the store’s entrance shrieked and a security guard grabbed the arm of a brawny man in camouflage pants.
“That,” Emma said.
“A shoplifter?” Nancy asked.
“I think he’s more than –”
The nearly-apprehended suspect swung his fist in a jaw-breaking uppercut, sending the grey-suited guard sprawling across the floor. The thief sprinted for the door.
Jim shouted the word and launched into a flying tackle simultaneously. He and the shoplifter thudded to the floor, the thief grunting under the impact. Jim pressed his knee into the thief’s back, immobilizing him until the security guard regained his feet.
After the guard took control of the thief, Jim brushed dirt from his hands and acknowledged the thanks of the store manager and a smattering of applause from the small crowd that had gathered during the excitement.
“Another perp apprehended,” he said, when he reached Emma’s side. “That’s what detecting is all about, Aunty. Being in the right place at the right time.”
“Exactly. And that’s why we’re here.”
“What do you mean, Em?” Nancy asked. “Did you know that guy was going to steal something?”
“Not him specifically. But that was the third petty theft at this store in the past two weeks. I think the shoplifting is a cover for something else.”
“Like what?” Jim straightened his tie. “The five finger discount is prevalent today, and the bane of most retailers. You’re making too much of this.”
“Maybe so, maybe no. I’ve been studying the Harmony Police Department online blotter. Whenever QueBee’s security intercepts a shoplifter, a shipment of electronics is stolen off the truck at the loading dock.”
“I expect the manager noticed too. But if it’ll set your mind at ease, I’ll mention it to him — after we check out the loading dock.” Jim put his hands on his hips. “If something is going on, I don’t want you intervening, Aunt Emma. Six months of observing me doesn’t give you enough detecting experience to tackle a case like this.”
He strode away, toward the back of the store.
“Can’t he sing any other song?” Emma muttered. “How am I ever going to become an associate detective? He won’t let me work a case until I have experience, and I can’t get experience unless I work a case.”
“You’re learning more every day,” Nancy said. “Though Jim won’t admit it, you practically solved the last case on your own. One of these days he’s going to have to start taking you seriously.”
“I hope you’re right.”
Emma shielded her eyes with her hand as she and Nancy walked out the back exit and into the bright sunlight of a Florida July afternoon. Was that — yes! A man lay on the pavement next to the tractor-trailer rig parked at the loading dock! She broke into a run, with Nancy and Jim close on her heels.
The man sat up as they reached him. He rubbed a hand across the back of his head and moaned.
“Are you okay?” Nancy asked.
“As well as can be expected after being conked on the head. But my head isn’t what’s worrying me.”
Jim extended a hand. “What is?”
“This is the third time I’ve been cleaned out on this run. My boss is beginning to wonder if I’m involved.” The man got to his feet, reached into the shirt pocket embroidered with the name Sam and drew out his phone.
“I called emergency,” Nancy said. “The paramedics are on the way and so are the police.”
“Don’t want a paramedic.” Sam lowered his phone and looked at his truck. “Unless they can save my job.”
“We might be able to help you,” Emma said. “We’re detectives.”
“You are?” Sam said.
“No,” Jim said. “I am a detective. James Galveston.”
“The James Galveston? Of Galveston Investigations?” Sam perked up. “Can I hire you?”
“No need. According to the flyer on the loading dock door, QueBee’s management is offering a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the robbers.” Jim buffed his fingernails on his suit pants. “You forgot to mention that, Aunty.”
“Must have slipped my mind. Are we going to start investigating now?”
“I am. You’re going to refrain from intervening while you watch and learn.” Jim gestured at the truck. “What exactly was stolen, Sam?”
“An entire load of electronics.”
“The same em-oh as the other robberies?”
“Em-oh? You talk like a detective, that’s for sure. Yeah, it was the same modus operandi — except I’ve never been clobbered before. I usually go inside and get Joe, the floor manager, to sign for the merchandise. The last two times, I come out, and bingo — the truck is cleaned out.” He lifted his shoulders. “The first load, my boss writes off as an insurance loss. The second, he starts thinking something’s fishy. So today I call Joe when I get here and I stay with the shipment. Someone snuck up and nailed me while I was waiting.”
“We should talk to Joe,” Nancy said.
“Yeah. Ask him where the heck he was,” Sam said. “If he’d gotten out here quicker, I might not have lost the shipment.”
“He was busy dealing with a shoplifter,” Emma said.
“They’ve been having a lot of problems with that,” Sam said. “That’s why it took me so long to get outta here when the first two loads were stolen. I was waiting for Joe to sign the papers.”
“I have a theory that the shoplifting is a smokescreen to keep you away from your truck while the crooks make off with the goods,” Jim said.
“I didn’t think of that.” Sam raised his eyebrows. “You really are good at this, Jim.”
“Yes, Jim,” Emma said. “Maybe you have a theory about how the thieves manage to escape so fast.”
“The police and my boss would like to know too,” Sam said. “The whole job takes less than ten minutes, and the thieves vanish into thin air. What’s your idea about that, Jim?”
“You’ll be the first to know when I’m ready to reveal my thoughts. In the meantime, you wait here in the shade with Nancy and my aunt until the police arrive.” Jim walked to the back of the tractor-trailer and climbed inside.
“It’s empty,” Sam said. “What’s he looking for?”
“A clue,” Emma said. “You stay with Nancy and I’ll reconnoiter out here.”
“It’s awfully hot, Em,” Nancy said. “Be careful.”
“I will. I have to. Jim will never make me an associate if I pass out from heatstroke in the middle of a case.”
She stepped out of the truck’s shadow, into the sweltering brightness of the concrete parking lot. Heat struck her like a physical blow. At the far end of the lot, waves of roiled air shimmered off the asphalt roof of a mini-warehouse. A sign on the side of the cement block building advertised the July special: One month free with a signed three month contract! The overflowing dumpster hunched on the service road between QueBee’s and the warehouse bore a sign too, one that was less consumer-friendly: Keep clear! Authorized vehicles only!
As if the warning was necessary. The rancid odor permeating the parking lot would keep anyone with a working nose from approaching.
Emma took another step away from the truck. According to the latest edition of Mystery Monthly Magazine, the scene of a criminal act should always be observed carefully for useful clues. While the magazine hadn’t mentioned what type of clues, the tip implied they would be conspicuous.
Obviously Mystery Monthly Magazine’s writers had never observed a concrete parking pad. The surface was clean, lacking so much as rubber peel marks left by the tires of rapidly-departing vehicles driven by desperate thieves. A puddle had gathered in a low spot, no doubt one of the mysterious fluids necessary for the survival and maintenance of large trucks.
She dipped her finger into the liquid and sniffed. Odorless.
“Looks like water from an air conditioner,” Sam called, as a police car and ambulance pulled up beside his rig.
“Thanks,” Emma called back.
She walked across the lot, reaching the mini-warehouse without finding another puddle. Up close, the building was huge, divided into seven connected units, each fronted by an oversized roll-up garage door. The dumpster was huge too, and smelled like a cross between an unflushed portable toilet at a construction site and the rotting carcass of week-dead road-kill, overlaid with the acrid odor of cigarette smoke.
Emma covered her nose and ran back to the loading dock. Jim had emerged from the truck and was talking to Sam, Nancy, and the police officer while a paramedic checked Sam’s head.
“Something wrong, Aunty?” Jim asked.
She caught her breath. “I know how the thieves have been escaping so quickly.”
“I sure wouldn’t mind hearing what you’ve come up with,” the police officer said. “We’re desperate for a clue.”
Emma waved a hand at the mini-storage building. “I believe you’ll find the thieves, as well as the latest shipment, behind door number one.”
“What I’d like to know, Em,” Nancy said later, over a superb late lunch of Beef Ragout, “is how you figured it out.”
“I’d like to say it was logical investigative techniques, but that would be an insult to Jim and the police.” Emma set her wine goblet on the table. “The credit has to go to my nose. The cigarette smoke was fresh and made me realize someone was in the warehouse. There weren’t any cars around, so it couldn’t be a customer storing stuff.”
“One of these days you’re going to be as good a detective as I am.” Jim leaned back in his chair. “Of course, your methods need refining, but I can’t complain about today’s results. We earned a six-figure reward for an hour’s work. That isn’t bad at all.”
“True. I can buy plenty of satin sheets with my reward money.” Emma winked at Nancy. “And as soon as you make me an official partner, Jim, I’ll be more than happy to share what’s left of the cash with you.”