Bring Me the Head of the Sanibel Sunset Detective
Sitting in his office at the Cattle Dock Bait Company, Tree Callister heard the distant sound of Frank Sinatra singing “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” a moment before the red-headed woman burst in.
Shocking flame-red hair, Tree observed, arranged in a 1960s-style bouffant, a dreamy expression on her round fortyish face as she extracted the EarPods and Sinatra grew even louder in the office before she shut off the iPhone she carried in her hand and said, “What do you think of Sinatra?”
“I’m not sure what to say,” Tree said. “I have conflicting reactions when it comes to Sinatra.”
“I love Sinatra,” she said, seating herself in the chair fronting Tree’s desk as though she had sat there many times before when in point of fact Tree had never set eyes on her. There was a lot of eyeshadow and a flowered mini-dress and high-heeled pumps, all of which added to the impression that she had just stepped out of a mid-1960s movie starring—well, the movie she emerged from could have starred Frank Sinatra.
“I’m Toni Rome,” she said in a little girl voice. “That’s Toni spelled with an i.”
“You’re kidding,” Tree said.
“My father named me after his favorite Frank Sinatra movie,” she said.
She brightened. “You know it.”
“Jill St. John,” Tree said.
She brightened more, those dark-ringed eyes growing larger. “She had the best lines in the movie. ‘Miami Beach. Twenty miles of sand looking for a beach. Twenty miles of pure jerks.’ I remind you of her, right?”
“She was the best part of Tony Rome,” Tree said.
“Although…” Her trailing sentence was punctuated with a frown.
“I mean, no offense or anything, but like what is this place?”
“It’s the office of the Sanibel Sunset Detective Agency,” Tree said.
Toni had full lips encased in bright red lipstick that she now compressed to show confusion. “But they’re selling fish bait in the other room.”
“The Cattle Dock Bait Company,” Tree said. “We share office space. They sell the bait. I help people in trouble.” Tree paused to allow her to take this in and then asked, “Are you in trouble?”
The red lips formed a grimace. “My fiancée has disappeared.” Her voice choked.
“Are you sure about this?” Tree asked.
The grimace became a look of impatience. “She’s gone. She’s not here. That’s disappearing isn’t it?”
The flashing eyes glared at him. “What’s the matter with that?”
“Nothing,” Tree quickly countered. “Simply trying to clarify things, that’s all.”
“I love her, she’s a bitch,” Toni blurted, apparently not seeing the contradiction in the statement.
“When did she… disappear?”
“Yesterday. I came back to our room at the Sanibel Moorings Resort on East Gulf Drive and she was gone. Her luggage. Everything.” Tears streamed down her face. “We were supposed to be married on the bacreach next week. Everything was arranged. Now she’s gone—”
The rest of her sentence was lost in a gush of tears. Tree wasn’t sure what to do. He withdrew a box of tissues from his desk drawer and pushed it across to her. Toni gulped a couple of times before tearing out a wad of the tissues and applying them daintily to her tearful eyes.
As gently as he could, Tree asked, “Do you have any idea what might have happened to her?”
Toni gulped several times before giving Tree a direct look. “My father,” she finally managed.
“What about him?”
“I think he might have killed her,” Toni said.
Tree cleared his throat before he asked, “Why would your father want to kill your fiancée?”
“He doesn’t like her,” Toni pronounced.
“That’s not much of a reason to kill your daughter’s fiancée,” Tree said.
“My father doesn’t need a lot of reasons to kill people,” Toni said.
“But why specifically would he want to murder your fiancée?”
“It might have something to do with what she does,” Toni said.
Tree waited for Toni to expand on that declaration. When she didn’t, he asked, “What does she do?”
“And there is the two-hundred-thousand dollars.”
“Two-hundred-thousand dollars? What about it?”
“The amount of money she took from my bank account.”
“Your fiancée stole two-hundred-thousand dollars from you?”
“I’m hoping she didn’t,” Toni answered. “But that’s what it looks like right now.”
“And when did you discover this?”
“The day before yesterday.”
“You discovered your fiancée stole money from you and that’s when she disappeared?”
“Isn’t it likely that your fiancée has taken your money and run away?”
“I can’t believe Caitlyn would do that,” Toni said.
“Caitlyn. Cat. Everyone calls her Cat.”
“Just Cat. Although I don’t think that’s her real name.”
“Why wouldn’t that be her real name?”
“It’s because of what she does.”
“What does she do?”
“She’s a professional hit person.”
That stopped Tree, not certain if he had heard her correctly. “A professional hit person?”
“As opposed to a hit man. Which is what they usually are.”
“A professional killer, in other words. An assassin.”
“I suppose that’s another way of putting it,” Toni said.
“I thought they only existed in fiction,” Tree said.
Toni shook her head. “No, they’re real.”
“Cat kills people?”
“She used to kill people. Now she’s retired. At least she told me she’s retired. I guess at this point I’m not so sure about that.”
“How did you meet her?”
“She worked for my father.”
“Because he doesn’t kill people himself?”
“Sometimes he kills them himself,” Toni said. “But when he doesn’t, he gets someone else to do it.”
“Like Cat,” Tree said.
“Like I said, she’s retired. Supposedly retired. I don’t know. Maybe she’s not retired.”
“What about you, Toni?”
“What about me?”
It was Tree’s turn to make a face. “You keep answering questions with a question.”
“I’m allowed to do that,” Toni replied. “I’m the client.”
“No, you’re not. Not yet.”
“I want you to find Caitlyn.” A level, unblinking gaze accompanied the statement.
“If Caitlyn or Cat is missing and she’s stolen two hundred thousand dollars, and you believe she may have been murdered, this is something the police should handle.”
That caused Toni to blink and to shift uncomfortably in her seat. “I can’t go to the police,” she said.
“My father doesn’t like cops.”
“If he murdered your Cat, it’s no wonder,” Tree said.
“I’m beginning not to like you,” Toni said, petulance in her voice.
“I’m trying to be honest,” Tree said.
“I don’t need you to be honest,” she said hotly. “I need you to help me.”
“Look, I can provide you with the name of a very good detective at the Sanibel Police Department. At least file a missing person’s report. Then decide where to go from there.”
“You’re saying you can’t help me?”
“I’m not equipped to go after a woman who’s possibly been murdered,” Tree explained, thinking at the same time that the last thing he wanted in his life was potential involvement in what looked like organized crime.
He continued, “The police can launch a proper investigation. Go to them. They are the ones who can help you.”
Her face had turned red. She had begun to breathe heavily, almost snorting as she jumped to her feet. “You bastard,” she yelled. “I’ll bet you don’t even like Tony Rome.”
“It’s better than Lady in Cement,” Tree offered.
That only served to enrage her more. She picked up the monitor on his desk and threw it against the wall. The glass in the screen smashed before it fell to the floor, leaking liquid crystal material.
“Hey, come on,” Tree called. “Don’t do that.”
“Too late,” she pronounced. “I’ve already done it.” She then swept the laptop off Tree’s desk, her eyes furious points of fire. “You can go to hell,” she screamed just as Tree’s best friend Rex Baxter appeared in the doorway.
“Have I come at an awkward moment?” he inquired.
Rex’s arrival had the effect of knocking the air out of Toni. She stood, trying to catch her breath, eyes wild, that crimson mouth drooping open. Tree said, “Rex this is Ms. Toni Rome. Toni, this is my longtime associate, Rex Baxter.”
“Before I retired from the Sanibel Chamber of Commerce, I was known as his friend,” Rex said.
“Toni’s favorite movie is Tony Rome,” Tree said.
“Personally, I prefer Von Ryan’s Express,” Rex said.
“You’re both losers,” Toni snarled before pointing a finger at Tree. “Believe me, you’re going to be sorry.”
“I already am,” Tree said. “You’re going to have to replace that computer screen and probably the laptop, too.”
“Screw you!” she yelled and flounced out of the office.
Rex looked at Tree and said, “Then of course there’s Dirty Dingus Magee.”
“Gawd in heaven,” Tree groaned.