Vanity Case


When a young boy witnesses a robbery but remembers only one thing about the getaway vehicle, locating the thief seems almost impossible. Until amateur sleuth Fran Valentine narrows things down a bit . . .


Retired schoolteacher Frances Valentine found her daughter Lucy sitting on a bench outside Ernie’s Café. Lucy had her elbows propped on her knees and was holding her hat (a black baseball cap with the word SHERIFF printed across the front) in her hands.

“You look a little downcast,” Fran said.

Lucy glanced up at her, squinting in the midmorning sun. “I am.”

“Did the bank bounce your check? A tree fall on your house? Netflix cancel your subscription?”

“Ernie’s out of doughnuts.”

“I knew it was something serious. What about your diet?”

“What about it?”

Fran sighed. “Where’s your cell phone, by the way?”

“In my patrol car. Why?”

“It’s been ringing, that’s why. Your deputy called and asked me to find you.”

“What for?”

“There’s been a burglary. Out on Dolan Road.”

Sheriff Valentine heaved herself to her feet and put on her cap and sunglasses. “Will this crime require any deep thought?”


“I think better with doughnuts.”

“Don’t worry,” Fran said. “I’ll do the thinking.”


Back at the sheriff’s office, Deputy Ed Malone filled them in on the details. While fishing under the Cato Creek bridge early this morning, a boy named Timmy Hankins heard the sound of breaking glass, scrambled up the creekbank, and saw a new black pickup parked behind the electronics warehouse a hundred yards west of the bridge. As Timmy watched, someone dressed in a sweatshirt, jeans, and a cowboy hat was climbing in and out of the building’s broken back window, loading what looked like heavy boxes into the truck bed. Minutes later, after Witness Timmy had ducked out of sight, the same truck crossed the bridge, twenty feet from him. Timmy called it in, Malone phoned the owner of the warehouse, and it was soon confirmed that several thousand dollars worth of merchandise had been stolen.

“Where’s Timmy now?” Lucy asked her deputy.

“At home. He’s Esther Hankins’s boy, remember her? She said we could come question him more if we need to, but I think he’s probably told me all he knows.”

“Did he say he got a look at the driver’s face?”

“No. Too far away at first, and when the truck drove past, the windows were tinted black. But it had one of those personalized license tags—you know, a vanity plate—and Timmy wrote it down.” Malone picked up a notepad and read off the letters: “S-A-B-E-R-2-T-H.”

Lucy frowned. “Sabertooth?”

“That’s what was on the tag.”

She sat down on the corner of her desk and looked at Malone. “Has to be a kid. Right?”

Before he could answer, Fran pointed to the computer. “Why not just run the plate and see who it’s registered to? Can we do that, on a Saturday?”

“Sure,” Malone said. “But it wouldn’t show us anything. The plate Timmy saw was on the front of the truck, not the back. From where he was standing, he said he couldn’t see the vehicle leaving the bridge.”


“And this state only requires rear license plates,” Lucy said. “That’s where the registered plate always is.”

Malone nodded his agreement. “Front tags can be anything you want ’em to be—school logos, car dealership plates, fraternity letters, whatever. They’re still called vanity plates, like the personalized rear tags, but there’s no record of them. We don’t know his real plate number.”

“Even so, front or back, who but a kid,” Lucy said again, “would want ‘sabertooth’ on his ride?”

“You might be surprised,” Fran said.

A silence passed. Malone, who had been frowning in thought, rubbed his eyes and said, “We do have one lead. Dolan Road’s under construction and blocked, two miles west of the warehouse—and Timmy said he heard the window break at six-fifteen and saw the truck leave just after six-thirty. He was wearing a watch, and he’s sure about the times.”


“He said he’d been fishing there at the bridge since sunup, before six—and nobody had passed over it. Since the creek bridge is the only way in or out of that area, and Timmy didn’t see the truck cross the bridge on its way to the warehouse—”

“It must have come from the other direction,” Lucy said.

“Right. Out where the road work’s going on.”

“So the thief,” Fran said, “lives somewhere in that two-mile stretch, west of the bridge.”


“But Timmy saw the truck—after it had been loaded up—heading east,” Lucy said. “Not west.”

Malone nodded. “Heading toward wherever they’d sell the stolen goods, probably.”

Sheriff Valentine rose from her seat on the desk and blew out a sigh. “That makes sense. Okay, guess you better drive out there and question the residents, Ed. I’ll get on the computer. And Mother, you go on home.”

“In your dreams,” Fran snorted. “Hold up, Ed, I’m coming with you.”


Four hours later the three of them met again. None of them had yet eaten lunch and Deputy Malone’s and Fran’s canvassing had provided no real answers, but a Department of Motor Vehicles check had revealed to Lucy that three late-model black pickups were registered to owners in that area: Clarence Latham, age 42; Jeff Webster, 66; and Stephen Abernathy Jr., 48. She’d called Malone, and he and Fran had interviewed all three.

“Latham’s an antique dealer from here in town,” Malone said to the sheriff, reading from his notepad. “Webster’s a retired professor from Nashville, and Abernathy’s a writer who moved here from Terre Haute, Indiana.” Malone looked up and added, “Neighbors say Latham travels a lot. I suppose he could have the connections needed to fence stolen goods. And Professor Webster’s field was electronics.”

“Well, we’d have to have more information than that, to bring anyone in.”

At that point the other deputy, Zack Wilson, ambled in with a greasy white sack under one arm.

“Are those doughnuts?” Lucy asked him.

“Fresh from Ernie’s.”

“I need one of those,” Lucy said, wiggling her fingers.

Zack handed her the bag. She dug a doughnut out, thanked him, and let him go. As he wandered through the door toward Dispatch, Lucy didn’t bother to brief him or ask for his help; Zack was in his late seventies, and spent most of the time in a world of his own.

“So you located all three vehicles?” the sheriff asked, chewing. “You saw them yourselves?”

Malone nodded. “Parked in their driveways. Nothing in the beds of the trucks, of course, and none of them had a vanity plate on the front.” He paused. “Maybe the driver saw Timmy see him, and removed the plate afterward.”

“Or maybe the truck hasn’t even come back yet. It was headed east—maybe it’s still gone.”

“Maybe it is.”

Everyone paused to think that over. “Any of the neighbors remember seeing anybody with a ‘sabertooth’ tag?” Lucy asked.

Together, Fran and Malone shook their heads.

Suddenly Fran, who had absently written SABER2TH on a desk pad, looked up. “I got it.”

“Got what?” Lucy asked.

“I think I know whose vehicle it was.”

“How could you know that?”

“I don’t, for sure—but two things connect him and that vanity plate.”

“What two things?”

“His name,” Fran said, “and his hometown.”

“Hometown?” Sheriff Valentine and her deputy exchanged a glance. “How does that help us? Latham’s local, Webster grew up in Tennessee, and Abernathy grew up in Indiana.”

“Bad choice of words,” Fran said. “I’d say Mr. Abernathy was raised in Indiana.”

“What do you mean?”

She grinned. “I’m not sure he’s grown up yet.”

“Speak English, Mother.”

Fran picked up the pad she’d been doodling on and waved it in front of them. “You two Neanderthals have been watching too many prehistoric movies,” she said. “SABER2TH could mean something totally different.”

“As in . . .”

The ‘SABER2’ could stand for S. Abernathy Jr.,” Fran said, pointing at the letters. “And the ‘TH’ could be—”

“Terre Haute,” Malone said, his eyes widening.

She gave him a proud smile. “Exactly.”

Lucy stayed quiet a moment, giving that some thought. “Is it enough to arrest him?”

“It’s enough to pick him up for questioning. He’s our man.”

Both sheriff and deputy headed for the door. “We’ll take it from here, Mother,” Lucy said, over her shoulder. “You can go home.”

“Dream on,” Fran said, falling in behind them.


John Floyd’s short stories have recently appeared in The Strand Magazine, Woman’s WorldAHMM, EQMM, The Saturday Evening Post, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2015. A former Air Force captain and IBM systems engineer, John won a Derringer Award in 2007 and was nominated for an Edgar in 2015. He is also the author of six books: Rainbow’s End, Midnight, Clockwork, Deception, Fifty Mysteries, and Dreamland (coming in 2016). Visit him at


  1. Nice little puzzle with good characters. I never would have figured it out.

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