All Washed UpMJ Austin’s eyes traveled up and down the length of me, only to finish with a disapproving glare. “You are a mess. Not even a hot mess. Just a dirty mess. And you need mulch around your sea island ficus. It looks unfinished.”

“Thanks heaps.” I tossed my trowel onto the sandy soil. MJ’s one of my two full-time employees at The Treasure Chest, a darling store I own in downtown Stuart, Florida. The shop specializes in upcycling, recycling, and repurposing goods. While MJ’s a wonderful asset and a good friend, on occasion she’s blunt to the point of being nasty. This was definitely one of those times.

“Don’t get that dirt on me.” She stepped away. MJ wore a lime green shift that hugged her curves. The plunging neckline was partially filled by a collection of gold statement necklaces. On her wrists she wore gold cuffs. A whiff of expensive perfume trailed her every move.

I, on the other hand, smelled like the inside of a locker room. I wore a sleeveless men’s tee shirt that had once been white and an old pair of my son’s cut-off jeans. My late father’s belt held up my britches. Correction: The dirt stuck to my pants held them up. I’d been working on my lawn for three straight days, weeding, trimming, planting, and moving existing plants to better spots. For the most part, the place looked great. But MJ was right—it badly needed mulch. There was no demarcation between the landscaped areas and my grass. In a week, two at the most, I’d be right back out here digging up weeds.

The proposal from the lawn care company had priced mulch way beyond my budget. No way could I afford the wood shavings, nor could I pay the laborers to spread out the ground cover.

I had told MJ as much when I asked her to come by. She’s a keen gardener, although I’ve never seen her get dirty. I think she wears gloves, a sun hat, and knee pads when she works. Her manicures are too expensive to spoil, her complexion too even to risk sun damage, and her clothes too nice to get soiled.

“Look,” I said. “I didn’t ask you here to give me a hard time about getting grubby. I asked you because I want your opinion on what I can do instead of mulching.”

“Hmmm,” she rested a finger against her chin. “I once saw a garden where the owner spread seashells and chunks of coral. That might work. We’ve got a lot of old coffee bean bags back at the store. Why not spread a few under the shells? I’d even help you collect the seashells. I bet Skye would, too.”

“Genius. Pure genius,” said our friend Skye when I phoned her to ask her for help. “I’ll bring the bags. How about this Sunday?”

On the appointed day, my chums and I combed the seashore for shells, hunks of coral, and what Skye called “fossils,” clumps of the remains of crustaceans. When they left at four, both women were worn out by dragging heavy mesh bags of treasure back to my house.

After a quick sandwich I gulped down for dinner, my grandfather came over. Poppy helped me scrape and dig around my plants. With his help, I was able to spread the burlap bag pieces on the ground.

For the next five days, I knocked off work at three and came home to pour seashells and rocks on top of the burlap. After an hour or two of hard work, I snapped leashes on Gerard, my Bahamian Potcake dog, and Jack, my Chihuahua. While they roamed the sand, I picked up more shells, including a few empty but broken leopard crab shells. The intense orange and black pattern of spots offers a vivid explanation of how these crabs got their name. After I spread the seashells, fossils, rocks, and coral, I carefully positioned the fragile leopard crab pieces on top. I planned to take a photo of my work and send it to my pals, but sunset came faster than I anticipated.

“I’ll take a photo and show the girls tomorrow,” I told my dogs while I fed them their dinner.

After a long hot shower, I collapsed in my bed. My makeshift mulch was beginning to take shape. It really, really looked good. Best of all, it cost me nothing but sweat equity.

But when I went outside to take my photo the next morning, the leopard crab shell pieces were missing. Where on earth did they go? Had I dreamed them up?

leopard-crab1It didn’t make any sense. It took another eight days before I found one more chunk of a leopard crab shell. This time, I took a photo after I set it by my plants.

That night I crawled into bed totally exhausted. I awakened when Gerard pawed at my arm and whimpered. “Poor boy. I should have taken you out before I fell asleep. Hang on, buddy. Let me get my shoes. I’ll grab the leash and a flashlight.”

Jack bounced to his feet. He was eager to go outside, too. After leashing up the dogs, I turned on the flashlight and opened the side door.

Not surprisingly, both animals needed to sniff around for the perfect spot. Little Jack had lifted one leg and taken aim at a sea island ficus bush when Gerard nearly yanked my arm out of the socket.

“What the….?” I raced along behind the big yellow pooch. When he came to an abrupt stop, I did too.

There in the triangle of light thrown by my flashlight beam was a large, shadowy creature. His beady black eyes glared at us. In his tiny pink hands, the opossum held a chewed up bit of something. One minute the critter was baring his pink lips and snarling at us; the next, he disappeared into the night.

But not before taking my prized piece of leopard crab shell with him!

—The End—

All Washed Up is the third book in the Cara Mia Delgatto mystery series, published by Spot On Publishing, March 2016.

Tear, Down, and Die, the first book in the Cara Mia Delgatto Mystery Series, is absolutely free for Kindle and Nook. Get your copy here:

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About the Author
As soon as she finishes her writing chores for the day, Joanna Campbell Slan hooks the leash onto her dog, Jax, and they go for a walk on the beach. There Joanna collects seashells while Jax chases sandpipers. When she isn’t washing the sand off her feet, Joanna is busy recycling, upcycling, and repurposing junk. You can see a few of her favorite things at Pinterest, her books on Amazon or contact her at

All comments are welcomed.

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