Monday, March 26, 2012

Beach Tale: "Easy Money", a short mystery

          Lance watched from his perch atop a stool at the Tiki Hut, a beachside bar that catered to the swimsuit clad.  Lance thought the tiki theme a bit overdone, but who was he to judge?  A balmy breeze blew off the Atlantic and beach babes strutted their stuff by the surf, and other normal circumstances Lance would be enjoying himself.
But tonight had a job to do.  He forced himself to keep his eyes on Charlie, his partner-in-crime, seated at the opposite end of the long teak counter.  Charlie paid the bartender with a crisp twenty-dollar bill, which was Lance’s signal to order a drink. 
          “Barkeep,” Lance called out, waving two fingers in the air, “I’ll take a Coke when you get a chance.” 
          The barkeep, Grant, according to his laminated name tag, nodded.  He turned away from Lance, threw a white towel over his shoulder then proceeded to scoop ice into a tumbler then squirted soda into it.  Lance watched Grant’s movements with one eye while keeping the other on the cash register.  If a waitress or another bartender added to the till, then their scam would be blown out of the water.
          Grant slid the icy beverage to Lance, who then slid a five-dollar bill back in return.
          Lance gently swirled the dark liquid around in the tumbler.  The sound of ice clinking against the glass soothed his nerves.  He feigned interest in the intriguing brunette two seats down while waiting for Grant to return with his change.
          “Here you go, Sir,” Grant said pushing three ones Lance’s way.  “Have a nice day.”    
          Lance reached for the bills, and then paused dramatically before tapping the money and saying, “Grant, there must be some mistake here.  I gave you a twenty.”
          “No, Sir,” Grant responded.  “You gave me a five.”
          “No, I’m sure it was a twenty, cuz’ that’s all the money I had.  It’s supposed to last me until payday Friday.”
          “I’m sorry Sir, but you gave me a five.  With the new design, it’s hard to confuse a Lincoln and a Jackson.”  Grant offered a crooked smile and with a dismissive nod, busied himself cleaning up after another customer.
          “I can prove it to you.”  Lance raised his voice in order to be heard above the steel drum music.
          Grant ignored him.
          “Hey!” Lance said, even louder this time. 
          Many of the other patrons turned and looked to see what the commotion was about.  Everyone except Charlie,, who knocked back the dregs of his drink then headed down to the beach.  Grant remained focused on his ritual of dipping dirty glasses through successive stages of cleaning solutions.
          Lance slid off his stool and made his way along the bar until he stood directly in front of Grant.  “Bartender, I’m telling you, I paid with a twenty, and I can prove it.”
          Grant stopped his task and dried his hands on the bar towel hanging on his shoulder.  He turned, braced his hands on the bar and looked at Lance.  “Okay.  Prove it.”
          Lance, who had long ago perfect the angelic smile that was so innocent and genuine that recipients soon doubted themselves, beamed at Grant.  “I’ve been saving back that twenty for a few weeks, and wouldn’t have spent it today if I wasn’t so thirsty.  You see, on the front of the bill, on the top left corner, there’s a name and phone number.”
          Grant’s jaw muscles tensed.
          “Go ahead,” Lance said, nodding in the direction of the cash register.  “Take a look.”
          Grant paused before turning and punching the keys on the computer screen.  The cash drawer slid open.  He lifted the top twenty-dollar bill—Charlie’s payment-- from its slot.
          This was Lance’s favorite part, where the poor sap waged a silent battle, knowing full well the customer had paid with a fiver, but the evidence proved otherwise. 
          “It’s the number of a hot babe I met about three weeks ago.  Thought about calling her.  A lot.  But like I said, I’m outta cash until payday, and this hot sun sure works up a powerful thirst.  I’ve got the number memorized, anyway.” 
          Grant alternated looking at the bill in his hand and at Lance.  He was one tough customer and was going to need a bit more convincing that the average shill.
“The name’s Sherri,” Lance offered more proof. “And the number’s 423-1568.”
A puzzled look crossed Grant’s face, but he couldn’t dispute the evidence.  He reluctantly reached back into the drawer and picked out a ten and a five.  He slammed the drawer shut then turned and slapped the money on the counter in front of Lance.  “Here’s your change for a twenty, Sir.”
          “Thanks, buddy.”  Lance grabbed the bills and fished in his pocket for a few quarters, which he threw Grant’s way for a tip. 
That was a close call.
Lance wasted no time in meeting up with Charlie in the parking lot.
          “Ready to call it a night?” Charlie asked.
          “Yeah,” Lance said.  “That guy knew he’d been scammed, he just didn’t know how.  And we’ve pulled in about three hundred in four hours…not bad for an honest day’s work.” 
          The two laughed as they got in the car and drove home.

* * *

          Lance and Charlie were just settling into their recliners when the phone rang.  Lance fished around in the seat cushions and pulled out the portable phone for the land line.  “Hello,” he said.
          “I’m calling for Sherri,” a man on the other end said.
          “You got the wrong number.  Aint’ no Sherri here.”  Lance disconnected then tossed the handset onto the table.  “I’m tellin’ ya, Charlie.  You should have seen that last guy’s face when he pulled that twenty out of the cash drawer.  That was classic!  I thought that blood vessel on his temple was going to bust!  Sometime we gotta hide a video camera and record ourselves in action.  Something to show our grandkids, ya know?”
          “I can’t believe so many people fall for that old switcheroo,” Charlie said.  “It’s the oldest scam in the book.  But I’ think we’re wearing out our welcome on the east side.  We might want to head south tomorrow night.”
          “I agree.” 
Charlie pulled out a tourist’s map and the two started scouring the south end of the beach for places to hit on their night of work.
          Twenty minutes later, their planning was interrupted by a loud knocking on their front door.
          “Must be the delivery guy.  One ham and pineapple pizza coming up.”  Lance grabbed some bills from their day’s earnings and headed towards the door.
          But when he opened the door, it wasn’t a pizza guy standing on the front stoop.  It was two uniformed police officers and Grant, the bartender from the last bar they’d scammed that evening.
          “What can I do for you, officers?” Lance flashed his angelic smile again.
          “Is this the guy?” the shorter policeman asked.
          “Yup,” Grant said, a smug smile spreading across his face.
          “Hope you ordered a large one,” Lance heard Charlie calling as he came down the hall. 
          “Him, too.”  Grant pointed to Charlie.
          They police officer read them their Miranda rights before leading them off to the waiting squad car.  As they passed Grant, Charlie asked, “How did you find us?”
          Grant smiled.  “I tried calling the phone number of the ‘hot babe’ written on that twenty.  I was hoping he woman would give me a lead on how to find you, only I recognized your voice,” he said, nodding towards Lance.  “Just a matter of reverse look up on the Internet, a phone call to the police, and now you’re game’s over.”
          Charlie glared at Lance.  “You idiot!  Why’d you write our number on there?”
          “I figured it would be easier for me to remember it when I had to recite it back…”

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