When Fran Valentine drops in to visit the school where she once taught, she finds herself right in the middle of a possible con game. And no one but Fran suspects the suspect . . .
Fran Valentine felt a warm glow as she steered her gas-guzzler into a parking space beside the high school building. She had taught here for many years, and it still seemed like home.
But the world had expanded, she thought, glancing at the license plates in the visitors’ lot: three from other counties, one from a faraway state. Noticing details like that came naturally to Fran. Observe and learn, she’d always told her daughter. Not that Lucy had always listened. Or observed. Or learned.
Then again, that kind of thing was easy for Fran: she’d often been told she was a born snoop. Although she preferred “naturally suspicious.”
The first thing she heard when she entered the building was a male voice, from the direction of the auditorium. She peeked through the door and saw a small man in a gray suit standing at the podium on the stage.
“And that’s what this fundraising drive is about,” he said, into a microphone. “Children who need our help.”
Fran watched him pause and scan the audience. She guessed there were at least two hundred students, teachers, and staff present. They seemed mesmerized.
“Boys and girls, I am a former history professor, and a lifelong student of politics. Our forty-fourth president is an true leader, as all U.S. presidents have been. Forty-four different men, all dedicated to our nation’s future—and yet illiteracy and poverty still abound. We’re quick to assist other countries—as we should be—but we must also help our own.” The speaker turned and handed a zippered leather pouch to Marcia Langsdon, the school principal. “In a moment all of you will be asked to file past and donate what you can: twenty dollars, ten, five, one, whatever. I will personally deliver the proceeds to my boss, the head of our state’s Department of Education.”
The gray-suited man backed away from the podium, and the crowd applauded. Fran had seen enough. She pulled out her cell phone and made a quick call.
When the students were gone and the principal and her visitor had collected the contributions, Fran followed them down the hall to Ms. Langsdon’s office. Then she checked her watch and pushed open the door.
“Morning, Fran,” Marcia Langsdon said, from her desk. She nodded toward the visitor and his now-bulging money pouch. “Frances Valentine, this is Mr. Randall Sweeney. He dropped in this morning during our general assembly—”
“What kind of car do you drive?” Fran asked him.
“A black Honda, possibly?”
His eyes narrowed. “That’s right.”
Ms. Langsdon looked puzzled, and a little irritated. “Fran, I’ve asked Mr. Sweeney to join us for lunch—”
“I heard your presentation, Mr. Sweeney,” Fran said, ignoring her. “And I’m wondering why someone employed by our state has a Massachusetts license plate.”
“I beg your pardon?” he said.
“Do you not have a Massachusetts tag on your car?”
“I do,” he said, frowning. “I recently relocated. From Boston.”
“To work for the director of our education department, you said?” Fran heard the door open behind her, and saw a visibly flustered Marcia Langsdon look in that direction.
“Why, hello, Sheriff,” Ms. Langsdon said, in a what now? voice. “Come in.”
Neither Fran nor Sweeney turned. They were staring only at each other. “That’s correct,” he answered.
“And the director, Susan Dunaway,” Fran said. “Susan knows you’re here this morning?”
“Of course she does. Susan and I agree on—”
“Susan Dunaway is my neighbor’s daughter, Mr. Sweeney. She’s two years old. Our state education director’s name is Dwight Goodwin.”
The room fell silent.
Sweeney’s face had gone pale. His gaze drifted toward the back door.
“Don’t try it,” the newly-arrived sheriff said.
“How rude of me, Mr. Sweeney,” Fran said. “May I introduce my daughter: Sheriff Lucille Valentine.”
Lucy moved forward, handcuffs out and waiting. Sweeney hesitated, then his whole body seemed to sag. He held his wrists behind his back, and Lucy snapped the cuffs onto them.
“So you’re nothing but a common thief?” The principal blurted, wide-eyed.
“I am an exceptional thief,” he said, as if trying to convince himself.
“But how—how’d you know we were even meeting today?”
“Most school assemblies are on Wednesday mornings,” Fran said. “Right, Mr. Sweeney?”
Sweeney blew out a sigh. “Apparently there’s one smart person in this town.”
“And the dumbest is on his way to jail,” Lucy said. “Come on, Mr. Sweeney. Mother, I’ll need a statement from you, later.”
After sheriff and prisoner had left, Ms. Langsdon gaped at Fran. “You phoned Sheriff Valentine and told her what was happening, didn’t you.”
“I called her, yes—and told her what I thought was happening.”
“But why’d you suspect something?”
“A slip of the tongue,” Fran said. “No history prof would’ve said what he did, in his speech.”
She smiled. “You used to be a teacher, Marcia. You should’ve caught it too.”
“Our current president is indeed the forty-fourth,” Fran said. “But forty-four different men didn’t hold that office; forty-three did. Grover Cleveland served twice, as our twenty-second president and our twenty-fourth.”
Ms. Langsdon blinked, then nodded. “You’re right.” Then she squinted. “How in the world did you pick up on that?”
Fran walked to the door, turned, and smiled. “I’m naturally suspicious,” she said.
John M. Floyd’s work has appeared in The Strand Magazine, Woman’s World, AHMM, EQMM, The Saturday Evening Post, Mysterical-E, and many other publications. A former Air Force captain and IBM systems engineer, John won a 2007 Derringer Award and was nominated for an Edgar in 2015. One of his stories has been selected by Otto Penzler and guest editor James Patterson for inclusion in the upcoming The Best American Mystery Stories 2015. John is also the author of five books: Rainbow’s End (2006), Midnight (2008), Clockwork (2010), Deception (2013), and Fifty Mysteries (2014).