“Thanks for stopping to check on us,” Fran said.
She and her daughter–Sheriff Lucy Valentine–were leaning against Lucy’s cruiser in the gravel parking lot alongside the remote Wild Boar Lodge, which at the moment contained not wild boars but wild teenagers: the lakeside building had been rented tonight by the local high school for a fundraising dance, and there was a huge crowd. Fran Valentine, a retired teacher, had volunteered to help chaperone the event and collect money at the door. “I better get back inside,” she added.
“Stay on your toes,” Lucy said. “I heard somebody might be planning something tonight.”
“Like what? A prank?”
“Don’t know. But them kids can be sneaky.”
“Those kids can be sneaky,” Fran corrected.
“Darn right they can,” Lucy said.
Fran sighed, turned to leave–and gasped.
“What?” the sheriff asked.
Fran was squinting at the building. “A light just came on, in that back corner window.”
“That’s where I put the money we took in tonight. And I locked that room an hour ago.”
“Anyone else know about that?”
“Sure–the proceeds are always kept there. But I have the only key.”
Grim-faced now, the two of them headed for the noisy lodge. They entered the side door, weaved their way through the dancing throng of students, and stopped before a group of bored-looking teachers. Sheriff Valentine pointed to the door leading to the rear section of the building–it was slightly ajar–and shouted, above the music, “Has anyone come through that door in the past few minutes?” When the teachers shook their heads, she pushed through the door herself, with Fran following.
They wound up in a hallway with several rooms on each side and a door at the end. That outside door, Fran remembered, was seldom used. Since the entire rear third of the lodge was built on stilts and extended sixty feet into the lake, that door led only to a long footbridge over the water to Gator Island, two tangled acres of muddy, soon-to-be-developed swampland that currently looked–to Fran at least–like snake-and-alligator heaven. On the far side of the island was a second bridge, to the mainland, but getting there on foot would be rough going.
Fran noticed that the door to the last room on the left–the room with the window she’d seen earlier–had been splintered and forced, and a brown grocery bag and crowbar were lying nearby. When she opened the bag she found the metal cashbox she’d used to collect admissions and donations. The money was inside.
“Good timing,” Fran said. “Whoever stole this was likely planning to escape the back way. He must’ve seen us coming, through the crack in the door, and aborted the mission. He knew we’d see him and catch him if he tried to cross the bridge.”
As she spoke, two teenaged boys emerged into the hallway from two different rooms. Each looked surprised to see the other.
“What’s going on here?” Sheriff Valentine demanded.
The first boy–tall and thin, dark, wearing Bermuda shorts, sandals, and a T-shirt–stammered that he’d felt sick and had been lying down. The second boy–short, green-eyed, jeans, hiking boots, baseball cap–said he’d been in search of a bathroom.
“The restrooms are out front,” Fran said, watching them. Lucy, holding up the grocery bag, asked if either had seen it before. Both boys said no. A quick search revealed that nobody else was in this section of the lodge. The dance music was still blaring.
“Names?” Lucy asked them.
The tall boy swallowed. “Bobby Morrison.”
The other said, “Tim Garrett.”
Lucy studied them. “This is serious, boys. I know one of you is guilty of stealing this cashbox. Who was it?”
Fran stared at the outside door a moment, deep in thought. Then she turned and looked at Tim Garrett. “Anything you want to tell us, young man?”
Garrett’s face went slack, then darkened. “It’s not my fault,” he growled. “How am I supposed to buy video games with the piddling allowance my parents give me?”
“My heart bleeds,” Lucy said. “Come with me.”
Afterward, she asked her mother how she’d identified the thief.
“He was the one wearing boots,” Fran answered. “Crossing that swampy island at night wouldn’t work in a pair of sandals.”
Lucy thought that over and nodded. “Pretty fancy footwork, Mother,” she said. “Pun intended.”
Fran grinned. “Just staying on my toes.”
John M. Floyd’s short stories have appeared in AHMM, EQMM, Strand Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2015. John is also a three-time Derringer Award winner and an Edgar finalist. His sixth book, Dreamland, will be released in October 2016.
Copyright © 2016 John M. Floyd. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited.