When most adults go to the beach, they focus on the ocean. The never-ceasing waves crashing on shore, the relative calmness farther out, the seemingly infinite expanse of water as far as the eye can see. Puts things into perspective, for sure.
Kids enjoy the ocean too. But they also like playing in the sand. Squishing it between their fingers, digging in with their toes. Building castles or excavating holes or just throwing globs of it at the skittish sandpipers.
When Wayne “Mitch” Mitchell went to the beach, he appreciated the ocean like the adults, but he focused on the sand. Specifically, he turned his attention to what might lay beneath the sand.
On this mid-July morning, he swung his Equinox 600 metal detector from side to side as he walked his grid pattern along the beach. A faint breeze tickled his nose with the briny sea-air tang. At this early hour, his only company was a man exercising his dog, and they were about a hundred yards north. Ordinarily, dogs were not allowed on the beach but there was no one around to complain and no one around to complain to.
As he did every morning, Mitch hit the beach early, hunting for treasures. At least that’s what he told himself. The treasures buried in the sand—either those washed ashore or left behind by beachgoers—were few and far between, and ninety percent of the keepers weren’t worth more than a few bucks, if that.
More than treasure, Mitch was looking for clues. His wife of thirty-four years was killed almost a year ago, circumstances unclear, and Mitch wasn’t going to leave any stone unturned. Or stretch of sand unchecked. The last place Lita had been seen alive was there, on that beach, and Mitch had convinced himself that a clue as to what had happened—and who had killed her—was also there. Somewhere.
Mitch worked his way along so-called Granny’s Alley, the area down by the water’s edge where grandmothers, hands slippery with sunscreen, waded in with their grandchildren. Their rings would slip off when their kiddies grasped their hands, hanging on for dear life as the waves crashed around them.
Today, no luck.
An hour passed. Then another. The beach began to fill, but even at its peak, say on a sunny Saturday afternoon in September, it was never very crowded. South Beach Park Beach in Boca Raton was nothing like the similarly-named world famous South Beach, fifty miles down the coast in Miami.
This was a city park, emphasis on park, which meant no buildings had been constructed along the beach. No high-rise condos with their throngs of tenants. No beach houses for rent. Just sand and ocean and dunes and foliage. A dense tangle of palm trees, sea oats, sea grapes, and other tropical plants provided a natural barrier between the parking lot and the beach itself.
Mitch and Lita had spent many hours on this very beach. Sunning, messing around in the surf, going for long walks. Watching the occasional sunrise together. With every step he took along the water’s edge, he felt a tug at his heart. But as painful as it was to spend time there alone now, it also felt comforting. As if Lita was sitting right next to him, the coconut smell of sunscreen wafting in the air, the delighted squeals of children watching their sandcastle moats fill with water.
Mitch’s detector chirped, and he stopped to investigate. After a minute of excavation with his long-handled scoop and a few subsequent scans, he unearthed part of an old soda can. Worthless. He stuffed it into a hobo sack slung over his shoulder, along with all the other trash he’d found.
He was about to turn back toward the water for his next pass when he heard someone calling his name. Another detectorist, a young man named Bucket, was heading his way, trudging along the beach at a snail’s pace, feet struggling to gain purchase in the soft sand. When Bucket saw that Mitch had spotted him, he raised his detector in greeting. Mitch waved in response and waited for Bucket to catch up, knowing that there would be some wild story to hear.
Bucket was a big guy, maybe twenty-five years old, and his clothes were always in tatters, except for the ubiquitous bucket hat that gave him his nickname. He didn’t have a job, as far as Mitch knew, and if you asked Bucket, he always described himself as “being down on his luck but things were looking up.”