|John Floyd's |
LAW & DAUGHTER Series
by John M. Floyd
“Are you serious?” Fran asked. “Someone broke into my house?”
Sheriff Lucy Valentine took her eyes off the road long enough to look at her mother. She hadn’t seen Fran this surprised since the time Lucy made an A in ninth-grade algebra. “Your neighbor scared him off,” she said. “Esther Beale.”
She gave Fran a quick summary. According to Deputy Ed Malone, Esther had noticed a moving shadow behind one of Fran’s windows. But while grabbing the phone, Esther had also grabbed her late husband’s .38 revolver, which she accidentally fired into her kitchen floor. Esther had then glimpsed someone in a white T-shirt and gloves hotfooting it out Fran’s front door.
Dispatch had relayed Esther’s frantic phone call to Deputy Malone, who was on patrol nearby. Malone quickly rounded up three suspicious-looking young men wearing T-shirts, radioed the sheriff, and drove the suspects to Fran’s house to see if Esther could point out the
intruder. He had found no gloves and no stolen items. Meanwhile, Lucy had picked Fran up at her cousin Mildred’s novelty shop downtown, where she helped out on Saturdays.
As the sheriff and her mother roared through traffic lights on the way to the scene, Malone radioed in again, this time with bad news: Esther could not positively identify the burglar. In fact she was so shaken she could barely identify the gun she’d used to blow a hole in her floor.
When Fran and Lucy arrived, Esther and the deputy and the three suspects were standing around in front of Fran’s house. None of the five looked happy.
“What kind of gloves did you see?” Fran asked Ethel. Lucy had strolled over to talk with Malone.
“The thin, rubber kind. Like on ER.”
Fran frowned. “You saw he was wearing Latex gloves, but you didn’t see his face?”
“Sorry,” Esther said, with a huff. “Next time I’ll ask him to wait till I fetch my binoculars.”
Lucy beckoned to her mother, and the two of them checked inside the house. The front door’s screen had been slit, the lock forced, and the front two rooms ransacked. A gold bracelet was missing off Fran’s desk.
“Where’d you find these boys?” Fran asked Malone, after Esther had been disarmed and dismissed. Everyone was outside again now, standing in the sun.
“Three different places, all within a quarter mile,” Malone answered. “The red-haired one was crawling around in Ms. Bailey’s privet hedge, the Asian guy was throwing something into Thacker’s Pond, and the one with the blond crewcut was running down the middle of the road. In the other direction.”
Lucy looked them over. The redhead was the youngest, probably junior high. The other two were older, seventeen or so. All of them looked either scared or worried, or both.
“Anything else?” she asked.
“None of them hang out together,” Malone said. “I think they’re telling the truth about that, at least. And all of them say they’ve never set foot inside your mother’s house.”
“Hm. Okay, take ’em downtown, Ed. We’ll sort this out.”
“How do you plan to do that?” Fran asked.
“I’m going to question them, that’s how. And make some calls, check their stories.”
“But you don’t even know for sure that one of them did it. If they’re all innocent, the real burglar’s still loose. We’re wasting time.”
“You have a better idea?”
“Sure do. Let me question them first. In the house.”
“What?” The sheriff shook her head. “Look, Mother—”
“I deserve it, Lucy. I’m the victim here.”
“But this is a crime scene.”
“It’s also my home. And the place where you grew up, if you recall. Give me a moment alone with your deputy, then five minutes with these boys, in my den.”
“But we haven’t dusted for prints, or—”
“Esther said whoever it was wore gloves, Lucy. There won’t be any prints. I think I can get to the bottom of this.”
Lucy sighed and looked at Deputy Malone, who shrugged. Finally Fran and Malone entered the house together, and several minutes later the grumbling sheriff followed them, leading the three youngsters through the disordered living room and into the equally littered den. Ed Malone passed them, on his way out, as they filed in.
Inside the den they found Fran sitting behind an oak desk like a judge in court. Lucy leaned against a wall with her thumbs hooked in her gunbelt while her mother rose and faced the suspects. Items in and around the desk were in disarray; it had obviously been one of the burglar’s targets. All three boys were trembling in their sneakers.
To the redheaded one Fran said, “Why were you hiding in the bushes, young man?”
His face flushed almost as red as his hair. “I wasn’t. I was looking for my watch. I lost it yesterday.”
“In Janet Bailey’s hedge?”
He hesitated. “Some guys took it from me, and threw it somewhere in them bushes.”
“Is that so.” She turned to the Asian boy. “And what about you? You were throwing something into a pond?”
“Rocks,” he said, swallowing hard.
“Not something you stole? Or maybe some weighted-down gloves, or the knife you cut the screen with, to get in?”
“Just rocks. Skipping ’em over the water.”
She was considering this when Deputy Malone sauntered in through the room’s only door, puffing on a cigarette.
Fran blinked, frowned, stomped past her daughter to Malone, plucked the cigarette from between his fingers, and bent over to crush it out in a wastebasket. “Folks don’t smoke in my house, Ed.” She turned to Lucy. “In fact, both of you wait out in the living room until I’m done.”
Lucy pushed away from the wall. “Now look here, Mother—”
“Trust me, okay? Ed, lock this door when you leave.”
Lucy started to reply, then changed her mind and left, mumbling under her breath. Ed Malone followed, and pulled the den door shut behind him.
Fran sat down again and faced the boys, who were visibly sweating now. To the blond one she said, “How about you?”
“What were you running from?”
“I was just jogging,” he said. “Training for football.”
“Seems a little early in the year to train for—” Fran stopped and looked about, scowling. “You fellows smell anything?”
And then she sprang to her feet. The wastebasket beside her desk began pouring smoke. The three young men stood frozen, eyes wide and mouths open.
Fran batted at the wastebasket with a manila folder. It didn’t help. Smoke was filling the room—
And the only escape route was locked!
The redhead began to moan; the Asian youngster just gaped; Fran continued to fight the growing cloud of smoke.
Suddenly, a blast of white foam engulfed the wastebasket. The blond boy, clearly terrified, had taken a fire extinguisher from Fran’s desk drawer and put it to use.
At that moment the door burst open, and Sheriff Valentine and her deputy rushed inside. “Mother, what the—”
“It’s okay now, Lucy.”
Her face pale, the sheriff herded the three boys from the room. She left Ed Malone outside with them and returned. Fran was still in the den, coughing and fanning the air.
Lucy watched her mother in silence for a long time. Finally she said, “You know Ed doesn’t smoke, don’t you.”
“He said you asked him to.”
“I did,” Fran said. “I asked him to borrow a cigarette from Esther.”
“And asked him to come interrupt you.”
“So you could tell us to leave?”
“And so I could get his cigarette.”
“And you of course know that door doesn’t lock,” Lucy said, pointing.
Lucy blew out a sigh. “I’m not asking all these questions for the fun of it, Mother. Do you plan to tell me what this was all about?”
“You’re the cop. Think about it.” Fran tapped the smoldering wastebasket with the toe of her shoe. “Does that smell like a paper fire, to you?”
Lucy studied her a moment. “No. It doesn’t smell like a fire at all.”
“That’s because it wasn’t a fire.” Fran nodded toward a small gray tube inside the foamy trashcan. “It’s a harmless two-dollar smoke bomb I bought today for your cousin Tommy, from Mildred’s party shop—he uses them for paintball games. I lit the fuse with Ed’s cigarette.”
“A smoke bomb?” Lucy did a palms-up. “Okay. I give up. What exactly were you trying to prove, here?”
Fran walked to her desk chair, dropped into it, and looked up at her daughter.
“The burglar’s identity,” she said.
“I know, now, who broke into my house today.”
“The boy with blond hair.”
“The one who was putting out the ‘fire’ awhile ago?” Lucy’s eyes narrowed. “How could you know that?”
“Because he’s not a superhero.”
“Superheroes sometimes have X-ray vision. I bet this kid doesn’t.”
“Mother, what on earth are you talking about?”
Fran smiled. “The fire extinguisher was in my desk drawer, Lucy. How could he know that, if he hadn’t looked in there before?”
The sheriff stared a moment, thinking. “So you set all this up?”
“Kids are sneaky, sometimes,” Fran said, “but they’re not dumb.”
Finally, very slowly, Lucy nodded. “It does make sense. I’ll take him in, and send Ed back to where he was caught. If the gloves and bracelet are found someplace between here and there, that’s proof enough for me.” She went to the door, then turned. Her face had softened. “Good work, Mother. Looks like you cut the bad one right out of the herd.”
“Assuming he’s only a mere mortal.”
“Assuming that,” Lucy agreed. “At least we know he’s not faster than a speeding deputy.”
“And hopefully can’t bend steel.”
Grinning, Lucy took the handcuffs from her belt and jingled them. “We’ll soon find out.”