"Hi, I'm Sheriff Donnely," the plainclothes cop said as he smiled. He looked in her eyes as he introduced himself, but his eyes dropped to her chest for just a split second. It was just a quick 'boob-check', but she noticed.
She was well beyond being repelled by such ingrained male habits and always took them in stride. Smiling back, she said, "Good morning Sheriff, I'm Char Collins. Looks like I'm the only one here" as she looked around.
"Must be the rainy weather and the weekday," he answered. It was a Tuesday.
Just then, Don Chang the storage facility manager, came walking up, umbrella held above his head.
"Good morning, Char, good morning Sheriff", he said. "We have only one unit to auction off today. Please follow me," he said.
He led them through the labyrinth of the public storage units. Char had been to quite a few of these auctions before, but she couldn't remember a time when she was the only participant. She had even been to this particular public storage facility before; that's how Don Chang knew her. She liked this one in particular because some of the neighborhoods around the storage facility were upscale. She knew this gave her a better chance of scoring quality goods here than most places.
It seemed that today's auction was located at the far end of the storage facility. Just when Char felt they were about to reach end of the units, Dan stopped in front of one. "P-46," he said as he pointed.
Sheriff Donnely handed Dan a clipboard with some paperwork on it, which he signed without checking. Then the Sheriff drew out his industrial strength bolt cutter and snapped the lock on unit P-46. The padlock plopped to the ground with a thud and the Sheriff rolled open the sliding door to reveal the unit's contents.
"Bidding starts at $200 and you know the rules, right Char?," Dan asked.
"Unless the rules have changed, I can look from door edge but I can't go in, right?" she replied.
"Right!" said Dan as he motioned her forward.
Char stepped forward to the edge of the doorway to examine the contents of the storage unit. It was a larger unit; about 10 foot by 10 foot and was about 75% full. Most of the stuff was in boxes, which was a good sign. The worst ones, for her purposes, were the ones where people had their stuff stored in plastic garbage bags or just in piles. The best ones were the ones where people had their stuff in moving company boxes or plastic storage bins. This unit seemed to lean toward the better quality from what she could see.
There were neat stacks of cardboard boxes, most of them about the same size. Along one side, there was a stack of see-through large plastic bins which contained clothing of some sort. She took out her flashlight and shined it to get a better view of the clothing. It appeared to be women's wear and seemed to be of the summer clothing variety.
Char could also see a coffee table and what appeared to be computer desk, as well as some chairs that were stacked up along one wall. Having no competition today made her decision much easier than it usually was. The only real decision was whether or not to pay the opening bid of $200 since obviously no one could bid against her. After thinking a moment, Char felt confident she would have no trouble making her $200 back (and then some).
"200" she said.
"Going once, going going" Dan said as he dispensed with the usual routine of waiting for another bidder to chime in. "Sold!"
Char reached in her purse and counted the two hundred dollars out, then handed it to Dan. "I should have this one cleared out by the end of the day, Dan." she said.
"Great, I know I can count on you," Dan replied. "Here's a gate key to get you in and out. Just drop it in the office door slot when you're finished." The 'Key' was actually a card that was swiped in the gate device.
She took the key and placed it in her wallet. After that, they said their goodbyes as the Sheriff and Dan walked up to the front to take care of some paperwork.
Now Char was allowed to go into the unit and do as she pleased. She went in for a closer look at the some of the stacked boxes. Many of them seemed light, which indicated clothing. Depending on the condition of the clothing, this could be very profitable for her. After spending a few minutes in the unit reviewing the contents, she went to get her truck.
It took the better part of the day to get the storage unit cleared. By the time Char got the last load into her garage, it was 2 o'clock. One more hour and it would be time to meet her daughter Katlyn at the school bus stop. But she had time to get started. She knew the sooner she could get started, the sooner she could get the sellable items up for sale. It was important for her to make every hour count.
She had a procedure in place for these kinds of storage auction purchases. She would initially go through all the stuff and separate the items into two groups. One group would be items she thought she could sell. The second group were things she knew she wouldn't be able to sell and could be classified as 'junk'. She would take the items from the first group, photograph them, and place them up for sale on eBay. If they didn't sell, then they would be moved into the junk group. The items in the second group would be taken to the dump (or donated if they were of any use to anyone). Her objective was always to minimize the second group when she made these storage auction purchases.
Char looked at the stacks of stuff and decided to begin with the see-through plastic bins. These turned out to be summer clothes as she had suspected and could easily be sold. There were summer dresses, slacks, and quite a few tops in very good condition as well as some belts and women's shoes. It didn't take her very long to go through them.
Then she decided to attack the sealed cardboard boxes. She noticed upon closer inspection that each box was numbered with a black marker on one side. This showed that someone had taken the time to carefully organize this stuff and Char wondered why, after taking all that trouble, they could not pay their storage bill.
While she was thinking, her cell phone rang. She looked at the incoming number, but didn't recognize it.
"Hello?" Char said. There was no one there.
"Hello?" she said again and waited before hanging up.
"Hrrmph!" she said and went back to work.
The first box she opened was box #7. She knew immediately it would go in the trash. It was a small box full of what looked like cheap, broken toys. There was a doll with its head missing and there was a model flyer with a piece of the wing broken, among other older cheap children's toys. She closed it up and carried it out back to the junk pile to make more space for herself in the garage. Glancing at her watch, she realized it was time to go meet her daughter.
Char was cleaning up from dinner while Katlyn had taken over the dining table to do her homework. Char smiled at her daughter with pride at how seriously she was taking her homework even though she was only in the 2nd grade.
"Honey, I'm going to go back to work in the garage. Just call if you need me," said Char as she hung up the dishtowel. The dining room opened up into the garage in her house so she could easily keep an eye on her daughter while she worked. Although Katlyn had outgrown the stage of just running off somewhere without warning, Char still felt the need to be close to her only daughter.
Char went back into the garage intending to pick up where she left off when she noticed that Box #7 was still in front the others. She thought for a moment and then specifically remembered carrying it out back to the junk pile.
'Hmmm' she thought and smiled, 'Now, I wonder what little troll might have moved that box back in here?'.
Char again moved Box #7 back out into the rubbish pile and continued to work. Most boxes were mixed (unlike Box #7); they contained mostly good, sellable items with a few junk items to take out. By 8:30pm she was done separating everything. Fortunately, most of the items appeared to be sellable and relatively few had to go into the rubbish pile. Photographing all the sellable items however, would make for a full day tomorrow.
While Char was straightening up, her cell phone rang. It was the same number as earlier.
"Hello?" Char said. Once again, there was no one on the line and Char hung up again. This time she marked the number; she would call the number back and have a word with them if they called again.
She secured the garage and went back inside.
"Honey did you move a box from the junk pile into the garage?" Char asked Katlyn when she got back inside.
"No mommy, I dint" replied Katlyn.
"Now Katlyn honey, how did that box get back into the garage? Are you sure you didn't have something to do with that?" Char teased.
"No mommy, those new kids did it," Katlyn replied casually.
"New kids?" Char asked.
"New Kids moved box, then said went away", was Katlyn's reply.
Char thought for a minute. The street they lived on was relatively void of children. There were no children in the immediate area except for a couple of teenagers in one house and a baby in another. Sometimes Char wished there were kids closer to Katlyn's age for her to play with. Char knew that oftentimes Katlyn simply made up her own playmates.
"Ok, well the next time you see those 'new kids', please tell them not to move mommy's stuff around, OK?" said Char.
"Time for you to get ready for bed honey; go ahead and mommy will come tuck you in" said Char.
Char began securing the house when her phone rang. It was that number again. Instead of saying anything, she just pressed 'connect' and listened. At first, she thought there was nothing on the line but then she heard some very faint background noise. In the faint noise, she could almost hear what she thought were children's voices, but she wasn't certain.
She pressed 'end' and then 'connect' to dial the number. It rang several times before going to someone's voice mail. The greeting said "Hi, this is Karen, can't come to phone right now, but please leave a message, thanks!". Char contemplated leaving a message telling "Karen" to stop calling her, but decided against it and pressed 'end' again.
Char woke up early the next day which was always a good thing. Katlyn was not a morning girl and Char often had great difficulty getting her up, fed, dressed, and ready for school. Her 2nd year of school had not quite gotten her into a morning routine.
After the usual scurrying about, Char saw Katlyn off at the school bus. She went back and immediately went back to work in the garage. She knew she had to get this load cleared out because she had another storage auction that afternoon. Heaven knows where she would put the stuff if she won today's auction too!
She stopped short after she pulled the door open. The first thing that came to her attention was Box #7. It was back again - sitting conspicuously in front of everything else with the top flipped open.
"What the..." Char said out loud. Now she knew Katlyn could not have moved the box back in the garage this time. Katlyn was in the house the whole time between when Char moved the box last night and this morning. Unless the little girl was sleepwalking, someone else was playing games with the box. Now Char wondered about those 'new kids'.
She was about to pick up the box and move it again when she noticed the contents had been shifted around. The toys were still there, but there were newspaper clippings on top of the pile of toys. What caught her attention was the word "Missing".
There were newspaper articles from the Seattle Times, each one dealing with missing children. As she read through them, her heart began to ache. Each child was around Katlyn's age and had been missing for more than a year. She flipped though the articles. Each had a photo and the name of the child. She vaguely remembered a string of Amber Alerts from many months ago and wondered if these had anything to do with them. There was a total of 5 children mentioned in the articles.
Char heard a noise behind her and turned around.
Char had sent Katlyn to her room to work on her homework. She could not have the child watch the news with her tonight. She watched in horror as the news played.
"A North Seattle woman today helped solve the case of 5 missing children who disappeared on the eastside last year. Tragically, it's the children's bodies that were found buried in shallow graves in at the home of Karen Whitmire of Bellevue. Ms. Whitmire is charged with 5 counts of 1st degree murder and is being held without bail pending her arraignment. Karen Whitmire ran a child sitting service from her home until last year, when her license was revoked. The prosecutor assigned to the case has already said the state will seek the death penalty for Ms. Whitmire."
Char watched as the news person interviewed the grief-stricken mother of the one of the children.
"I always hoped I would see Josh again", the woman said between her tears. "At least now I know... " the woman began sobbing.
Then the news switched to an interview with an investigator.
"Charleen Collins acquired Karen Whitmire's stuff in a storage auction and she helped us connect a box of toys with the murders. Thanks to Mrs. Collins, we were able to crack open this case which, to be honest, had become a cold case."
Char switched off the TV. It had really been the 5 kids that helped her make the connection. There was nothing more she could do.
As she began preparing dinner, Katlyn came out of her room.
"All finished mommy!" she declared. "Can I go out and play?"
"Sure honey, just stay around the back yard ok?" said Char.
"I will mommy, I wanna see those new kids again." Katlyn said.
Char smiled at her daughter and said "Honey, I think the new kids have found their way home. I don't think they'll be back."
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