Sheriff Lucy Valentine looked up from her pancakes to see a sad-faced young man in dirty jeans and a torn shirt enter Nesbit’s Café and approach her table.
“You a cop?” the man asked. “I seen a police car outside.”
“If SHERIFF was painted on its door, that’s mine. Who’re you?”
“I been mugged,” he said.
The sheriff stopped chewing. “What?”
“Two guys jumped me and whacked me on the head.”
“You okay? Need a doc?”
“Take a seat,” the sheriff said. “Sounds like you’ve had a long day, already. Want some breakfast?”
“That’d be good.” He dropped into a chair. “Couple eggs, maybe?”
Waitress Joanie Higgins appeared from nowhere. “I heard that,” she said. “How would you like your eggs cooked?”
“Cooked?” Neal said, brightening. “That’d be even better.”
She gave him a puzzled look.
“Scrambled, Joanie,” Lucy said. Then, after the waitress had left: “Can you describe your attackers, Mr. Neal?”
“Not really. They kept mostly behind me. One said they was from Brazil.”
“Why would he tell you that?”
“To scare me, I guess.” Neal’s glum expression had returned. “Where’s Brazil?”
“Far away. They say anything else?”
“Not in English. One of ’em said, ‘Give us your money, and fast.’” Before Lucy could ask how he understood that, Neal added, “He said it in Spanish, and my mom’s from Mexico.”
“And where’d all this happen?”
“Don’t know, exactly. A few blocks north. They dragged me into an alley, and then–I remember this–they pushed me through a tall wooden door with gold-colored hinges on the outside. Strange, huh?”
“So did they take your money?”
“Didn’t have none. They took my watch, whopped me on the head, and threw me out.”
“A gold pocketwatch, belonged to my grandpa. They stole it.” Joanie returned with a plate of scrambled eggs and hash browns, set it down, and left. Neal took a bite and mumbled, his mouth full, “Only thing I own that was insured. That’s why I’m reporting this. I need to file a claim and get paid.”
The sheriff, who’d finished her pancakes, said, “Where do you live, Mr. Neal?”
“Out on Dayton Road. Why?”
“Well, there might need to be a search of your premises, after we do the paperwork.”
Lucy studied him a moment. “You know what insurance fraud is?”
“Fraud? Whaddaya mean?”
“I mean intentionally filing a false claim. Saying something was stolen that wasn’t.”
“You see, Mr. Neal, you picked the wrong cop to report to. I got a call earlier from a dollar-store manager about a mile away. Said he got into a scuffle with a young guy trying to shoplift some snacks. The thief got away.”
Neal’s shoulders slumped.
“With a torn shirt,” Lucy added.
“You lied, didn’t you. There was no mugging, no Brazilians, no door.”
Neal sighed. “No. I just have the watch and needed some cash.”
“Think your grandpa’d be proud of you, for this?”
After a long pause Lucy said, “Look. The way I see it, you’ve attempted two crimes but no real harm’s been done. Okay?”
The young man just sat there, staring at his now-empty plate.
“Look over there, through that window.” She pointed at several men in work clothes climbing into the bed of a pickup truck. “Day laborers, for Jake Cooper’s farm. You go over there, tell ’em I sent you, you can earn some honest money. Understand?”
“Go then,” Lucy said, “and sin no more.”
After Neal left, owner Lester Nesbit strolled over. “I been listening,” he said. “How’d you know he was lying?”
“Well, when somebody tells you two things that ain’t true, you can bet he’s lying about everything else too.”
“What do you mean?”
“People from Brazil don’t speak Spanish, Lester. They speak Portuguese.”
“Hmm. And what else wasn’t true?”
Lucy tossed a twenty-dollar bill on the table and stood up. “When you ‘push’ in through a door, you can’t see the hinges. They’re on the inside, not the outside.”
Lester chuckled. “Sounds like he wasn’t too good at lying.”
Lester looked down at the tabletop a moment, then frowned. “Don’t be so sure.”
“Wasn’t your cell phone laying right there a minute ago?”
Lucy gasped, and turned to the window. She saw Jake Cooper’s truck rumbling away with his workers in the back–and David Neal was not among them.
“It really has been a long day,” she said. “Already.”
John M. Floyd’s short stories have recently appeared in The Strand Magazine, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, and Best American Mystery Stories 2018. John is also a three-time Derringer Award winner and an Edgar nominee. He and his wife Carolyn live in Brandon, Mississippi.
Copyright © 2019 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.