“Sorry, Sheriff,” the ticket-booth guy said, smacking his gum. “Admission’s six dollars.”
Lucy Valentine frowned. “You usually let me into the movie free.”
“New manager, new rules.” He blew a pink bubble and popped it.
“She’s actually here to check the crime scene, Billy,” a woman’s voice said. Surprised, Lucy turned to see her mother Fran standing there.
“Hi, Miss Fran,” Billy said, perking up. He looked back at Lucy. “No problem, Sheriff.”
Fran Valentine took her daughter’s elbow and steered her through the door. “The next movie starts in ten minutes,” she murmured. “You have time to look things over again first.”
Lucy pulled her arm away. “I’ve already looked things over, Mother. The robber’s been caught, remember? What’re you doing here, anyhow?”
The crime scene, in this case, was the brightly-lit theater lobby. Handyman Joe Knight had held up two attendants behind the snack counter last night and emptied the cash drawer. When later stopped for running a stop sign, however, he’d had trouble explaining the pistol in his waistband and the wads of money in his pockets.
“I’m here,” Fran answered, “because your deputy told me Joe says he had an accomplice.”
“That’s right. His wife, Hazel.”
“But Hazel’s his ex-wife.”
“So she hates him. After the divorce, she got a restraining order–Joe Knight can’t come within fifty yards of her house.”
Lucy sighed. “All I know is, he swears Hazel gave him a signal, inside the theater.”
“They were both here last night?”
“They came separately. She sat halfway back, he sat down front. Joe says he made a fast trip to the restroom during the show, and on his way back in, he saw Hazel hold her hand up to her ear with two fingers extended. It meant the coast was clear.”
“How so?” Fran asked.
“He said Hazel knows the theater’s security guard, who usually comes inside to watch the feature. Hazel’s signal confirmed that the guard was there, and not in the lobby.”
“Wouldn’t Joe have seen that for himself,” Fran said, “on the way to the bathroom?”
“The guard doesn’t wear a uniform, and Hazel knew where he sits. Joe didn’t.”
“So how’d they work this out beforehand, since Joe’s not supposed to approach her?”
“By phone, I guess. Who cares?” Lucy longingly studied the bags of buttered popcorn, but decided against it. Her mother was always hounding her about weight.
“And what was Hazel expecting to get for helping Joe rob the place?” Fran asked.
“Half the money,” Lucy said. “Most of a theater’s profit comes from popcorn and soft-drink sales.”
Fran snorted. “That whole scenario sounds weak to me.”
“The jury’ll decide that.”
“You’ve arrested Hazel already?”
“Sure have,” Lucy said. “She’s implicated in a felony.”
“And what does she say about all this?”
“She says she’s innocent.”
Fran nodded. “That’s because she is innocent.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I know Hazel. She wouldn’t do this.”
Another sigh. “Mother, in spite of what you think, you aren’t Sherlock Holmes. Okay?” Lucy walked the ten paces to the theater door. From beyond it, she could hear intro music. To her mother, she added, “I’m tired, I’m off duty, and I want to see this movie. Thanks for getting me past the palace guard–but we’re done.” She turned away.
“Don’t you move, Lucy Valentine. I’m not done.”
“What do you mean?”
Fran raised her chin and said, “I mean Joe Knight’s lying.”
“Why would he do that?” Lucy asked. “He was caught, redhanded. Why falsely accuse Hazel?”
“Because of their son.”
“Joe probably doesn’t want her to have custody.”
The sheriff paused. “But Joe’s going to prison–he can’t have custody.”
“No, but his mother can. Joe’s an idiot, but he does love his son, and his mother.”
“And hates Hazel.”
“Yes,” Fran said.
“So you’re saying he planned this, in case he got caught?”
“Who knows–he might’ve implicated her even if he’d gotten away. In a letter to you from wherever he wound up, maybe.”
“But you can’t prove Joe’s story’s false. Right?”
“I won’t have to,” Fran said, smiling. “It’s obvious he’s lying.”
“Why’s it obvious?”
“Because”–Fran reached past her daughter, pulled open the door, and pointed inside–“he couldn’t have seen a quick finger-signal inside a dark theater, just after coming back in from the lighted lobby.”
Lucy gulped. After a long moment she nodded. And whispered, “You’re right.”
“Call me Sherlock,” Fran said.
John M. Floyd’s short fiction has appeared in The Strand Magazine, AHMM, EQMM, The Saturday Evening Post, Mississippi Noir, The Best American Mystery Stories, and many other publications. John is a three-time Derringer Award winner, an Edgar nominee, and the author of six collections of short mystery stories.
Copyright © 2017 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.