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Penny Pitch: An Original Mystery Short Story

IN THE January 26 ISSUE

FROM THE 2013 Articles,
andMysteryrat's Maze
SECTIONS

by J.J. Lamb

Enjoy this never before published mystery short story by J.J. Lamb.

I sensed rather than heard someone approaching my garage. I kept my head under the rear deck lid of the Porsche and took a firmer grip on the fan pulley wrench I was using. People sneaking up on me tend to make me very, very nervous. There are a number of unsavory characters in and around Lake Tahoe who think they have good reason to inflict physical damage on my person.

Looking back under one arm, I spotted a pair of small, well-worn running shoes moving toward the open door. I eased my hold on the wrench and turned to see a bright-eyed girl of maybe twelve or thirteen. She wore wash-faded jeans and a soccer shirt at least four sizes too large.

“Hi!” I said, wiping the grease from my hands onto a piece of old bath towel. I recognized her as being from the neighborhood, but I didn’t know her name or exactly where she lived. “What can I do for you?”

“I want to hire you,” she said.

Not an unusual request, but most of my clients are somewhat older.

“Broken bike?” I asked, since everyone on my street knew I spent a lot of time in my garage working on one car or another.

“I know how to fix my own bike,” she said, glaring at me with large brown eyes. “How much do you charge?”

“For what?”

“You are Mr. Rolfe, aren’t you?”

“That’s me.”

“That’s what I thought,” No change of expression.
“So, I want to hire you. Only I need to know just how much you charge ‘cause I don’t have very much money left. Like, I mean, that’s part of the problem.”

“Not an uncommon situation. However, before we proceed you might tell me your name.”

“Oh! It’s Robbie. I mean, Roberta Marie Creswell. But everyone calls me Robbie, you know?”

“You live around here, right?”

“Uh, huh. Like, around the corner on Arroyo Grande.”

“Okay, Miss Creswell, I still need to know want you want me to do for you. Different jobs have different prices.”

She squinched her face. “You don’t have to call me Miss.”

“How about Ms., then?”

“I’m not old enough for that.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know there was a minimum age. But I still don’t know how I might fit into your problem.”

She gave me a look that said I wasn’t impressing her. “My dad says you’re a private investigator.”

“Something like that.”

“He said people hire you to catch people who cheat at gambling.”

“That’s as good a description as any, I suppose.” I snagged my castered mechanic’s stool with a toe, pulled it to me, and sat down. “And you want to retain me in that capacity?”

“Yeah. That is if I can afford you. I only have eight dollars left.”

“I see.” This didn’t seem like the time to explain that the smallest fee I’d accepted in the past five years was ten thousand dollars, so I hedged. “Have you asked your dad for help?”

“Not enough money, huh?” she said.

“Money really isn’t the point, Robbie. I just think maybe you should first talk to your family about your problem.”

“Can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Just can’t.”

“Okay, I’ll accept that for now, but I may want to know why later on.”

She shrugged her acceptance.

“Then tell me why you think I can help you. And while you’re doing that, I’m going to finish tuning my car.”

“Will you pay attention?”

“Of course,” I said, getting up. “Why wouldn’t I?”

“Well, my dad doesn’t always pay attention to what I’m saying when he’s busy.”

“Look, I promise to pay attention. Besides, if I can work on my car at the same time you’re giving me a briefing, it could save you money.”

She thought about that for a moment and said, “Makes sense.” She looked around the garage and added, “Do you need any help? I’m pretty good at fixing things.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“That’s a put-off.”

“No it isn’t.”

“Okay, but if I do help, will that save me money too?”

I nodded, hoisted on my own cleverness. “Yes, if I request your help, I’ll credit the work to your account, provided I take the case. Otherwise, I’ll pay you the going rate for an apprentice mechanic.”

“Deal!”

I heard her take a deep breath as I leaned back into the Porsche’s engine compartment.

“I think I’m being cheated,”
she said, moving up close to the back of the car. “Me and a bunch of other kids at school.”

“Who do you think is cheating you, one of the teachers?”

“No, not a teacher. I wouldn’t come here for that. Like, maybe teachers aren’t always fair about grades and detention and things like that, you know, but that’s different. It’s Jackie Bob Ryan. He’s cheating; I think. Only I can’t prove it, you know?”

“So who is Jackie Bob Ryan?” I asked while tightening down the last sparkplug.

“He’s from Sacramento.”

“Sacramento? You mean he came all the way over here to Tahoe to cheat a bunch of school kids?”

“No, that’s not it. Like, he’s from Sacramento. His parents just moved here. He’s in the ninth grade.”

I straightened up; her arms were rigid at her sides. “Does this have anything to do with this guy threatening to beat up on you and your friends if you don’t give him your lunch money?”

“Hah! That’s sure not Jackie Bob. He only comes up to here on me.” She held her hand at just below her lower lip. “I could wipe his face in the dirt any time.”

I believed her. “So what is it, then?”

“Lagging pennies.”

“Lagging pennies?”

“Yeah.”

“You mean tossing coins to see who comes closest to a line or a wall?”

She nodded.

While I’m supposedly an expert on spotting all kinds of casino scams, regardless of on which side of the tables they occur, the concept of cheating at pitching pennies was outside my experience.

“Seems to me,” I said, “that perhaps you should simply stop playing if you think Jackie Bob is cheating. I mean, how much have you lost?”

She swallowed hard. “Twelve dollars.”

“Has this been going on for a long time?”

“Two weeks.”

“Only two weeks? That’s a lot of pennies.”

She looked down at the garage floor and mumbled, “We pay off in quarters.”

I went around to the side of the car, checked to make sure the transmission was in neutral, and started the engine. When I was sure it was idling correctly, I said, “First off, you really shouldn’t be gambling.”

Her head snapped up. “You sound just like my dad.” She glared at me for a moment. “I should have known better.” She turned and walked angrily out of the garage.

She was right. She’d come to me for help, not a lecture.

“Robbie!” I called out and started after her. I owed her an apology. I also wanted to know more about li’l ol’ Jackie Bob. I caught up with her at the end of the driveway. She stopped, but she wouldn’t look at me.

“Hey, I’m sorry,” I said. “What I said wasn’t, uh, very professional of me.”

She cocked her head around, surveyed me, and said, “I bet you don’t treat your adult clients that way.”

“I foul up with them sometimes, too,” I said truthfully. “What do you say we go back inside the garage and start over?”

She gave me another searching look, turned around, and started toward the garage. I followed along behind her.

“I do need more information,” I said, checking the still-idling Porsche engine with a dwell tachometer. “But you have to promise not to get upset when I ask you questions.”

“I don’t care if you ask questions, that’s what you’re supposed to do, isn’t it?”

“Exactly.” I revved the engine a couple of times. “Now, back to Jackie Bob. Was it his idea to pay off in quarters?”

“Yes.”

“Why not just use quarters in the first place?”

“He said no one would pay any attention to kids pitching pennies, but using quarters might cause a problem.”

“Smart kid, your Jackie Bob. However, maybe pitching pennies just isn’t your thing.”

“What do you mean by that?” she said.

“Well, for example, there are some casino games I’m fairly good at playing and others where I never win. Understand?”

“Yeah, I understand. But before Jackie Bob showed up, I was the best. And I always win at those carnival things where you toss coins into a dish.”

“Fair enough,” I said, unhooking the dwell-tach. “Are you in debt to Jackie Bob?”

“No.”

“Okay, so tell me why you can’t go to your parents with this.”

She plopped down on the mechanic’s stool and started talking without looking at me. “Like, my grandmother gave me twenty dollars for my birthday and I’m supposed to buy myself a present with it. Only that was three weeks ago and, like, she’s bugging me to show her what I bought. And my parents are on my case about it, too.”

“And the gift money is now down to only eight bucks, is that it?”

“Uh, huh!”

I closed the engine lid.
“You should know, Robbie, that if you hire me, it could cost you most, if not all, of what you have left.”

“I don’t care. If I can prove Jackie Bob has been cheating us, then I won’t feel quite so bad about having to tell everyone what happened to the twenty dollars. I don’t want to look like a jerk.”
I admired her attitude if not what she’d been doing.

“Okay, Robbie, I’ll take the case.”

“For free?”

“No. My retainer fee is eight dollars.”

She gulped, took a deep breath, and said, “Deal!” She stood and held out her hand to shake. Afterward, she dug into one pocket and pulled out several crumpled bills, which she handed to me.

“I should tell you now that sometimes these things run up unforeseen expenses.”

Her eyes widened. “You mean it might cost me even more?”

“I’m afraid so.” I didn’t want to kill her spirit, but it seemed a good time to enforce the idea that gambling can be very costly.

She shook her head. “Can’t help it. I gotta do this.”

“Now you need to give me all the details. But first, why don’t you go into the house and get a couple of sodas for us. The kitchen’s on the right.”

While she went off for the drinks, I listened to the Porsche’s engine to make sure it was running smoothly while I put away the tools and cleaned my hands.

“Are you married, Mr. Rolfe?” she said as she handed me my drink.

“No.”

“Girlfriend?”

“Not at the moment.”

“I didn’t think so.”

“Some problem with that?”

“Uh, no. It’s just that I noticed your house is kinda messy, you know? And there’s not much to eat in the refrigerator.”

Why did she need me to investigate for her? While I tried to think of something defensive to say, the Porsche’s engine sputtered and died. I threw my clean-up rag at the car but didn’t say the word that was on my mind.

“What’s the matter?” she asked. “Did I do something wrong?”

“It’s not you, it’s me. I became so involved in our discussion that I allowed the dumb car to run out of gasoline.”

She snickered, which lost her a couple of points even though I would have done the same thing in her place.

* * *

Just before noon the next day, I drove to the supermarket and parked within sight of, but a good distance from, the penny-pitching wall. I sat in the car and listened to an old tape of Bill Cosby routines and waited for the junior gamblers to arrive. About 12:15, middle schoolers descended on the supermarket in droves. They were full of the kind of explosive energy that’s difficult for adults to remember, or tolerate. Within a short time, several boys, and Robbie, gathered at the side wall. I waited for Cosby to finish telling about Noah building the ark, then went into the store to pick up groceries I actually needed. I figured it would make a good cover.

When I came out, I passed by the wall, stopped, and watched pennies being lagged up against the stucco. It didn’t take long to spot Jackie Bob, with his shaved head, stretched-out t-shirt, five inches of boxer shorts showing above cut-off cargoes, and an in-charge attitude. He was a consistent winner, but no money changed hands. Robbie had told me that settling up came later.

I moved in a little closer when it was Robbie’s turn. She was aware that I was there, but according to our plan, she didn’t acknowledge she knew me. My presence did earn me a couple of curious stares, but no one said anything.
As I watched, it became obvious that Robbie hadn’t told me any tall tales—she was good. But she wasn’t good enough to beat Jackie Bob. After he took five out of six tosses, she quit, following instructions. I stayed on to watch the other challengers go down in defeat before returning to my car. Robbie was there waiting for me.

“It was like I said, right?” she said.

“Yes, but I didn’t see anything obvious, like nudging a coin with a toe or distracting the other players while he made his toss, or claiming the wrong coin.”

She crossed her arms across her chest.
“I could have told you that, Mr. Rolfe. We never would let Jackie Bob pull any of those dumb stunts. We’re not idiots, you know.”

“Point well taken. But since I’m the one you hired, I needed to see for myself.”

She nodded and allowed her arms to slip down to her sides. “Are you saying you think Jackie Bob is just plain better than the rest of us?”

“He’s good, but whether he’s the best, or whether he’s cheating, that needs a bit more investigation.”

“Then you’re not giving up?”

“Not at all. For one thing, I’d like to know why he uses the same penny all the time. He guards it as if it were made of gold.”

“You noticed that, huh?” She actually seemed impressed. “He says it’s his lucky penny. A lot of players do that.”

“Do you have one?”

“Not me. I don’t go for that superstitious stuff. Either you’re good or you aren’t.”

“Have you ever noticed anything unusual about Jackie Bob’s lucky penny?”

“No. It just looks like any old beat-up penny to me.”

“You’re probably right,” I said, looking at my watch. “Anyway, you better get yourself back to school.”

“What are you going to do?”

“What you’re paying me for—more investigation.”

She nodded. “What do you think you’ll find?”

“At this point, I have no idea,” I said, which was the truth. “Call me later or come by the house. I’ll give you a report on my progress, if any.”

She gave me an indecisive look. “Okay, but you should know that I lost another dollar today and you have all my money.”

“When do you have to pay him?”

“After school today.”

“Since I told you to play, I’ll cover the dollar.” I handed her a one-dollar bill.

“Is that one of those ‘unforeseen expenses’?” she asked
.

“Get!” When she was gone, I walked over to the gaming site, pulled a few coins from my pocket, and tried my skill. Any of the youthful players would have beaten me, to say nothing of Jackie Bob and Robbie. In my favor, it’s been a long time since I’d played the game.

I gathered my coins, winked at an elderly shopper who was giving me the fish-eye, and started to leave. Then I noticed an irregularity in the playing surface near the store wall. I didn’t want to tamper, but I did go back inside the store and purchase a “handyman selection” of steel washers.

I tried my skill again, alternating between the coins and washers. It didn’t take long to become relatively certain I was onto the secret of Jackie Bob’s success.

* * *

It was back to the supermarket the next day,
grocery bag in hand, ready for the day’s event. I also had a small screwdriver in my hip pocket. The action went much the same as the previous day, with Jackie Bob winning the first couple of rounds.

Robbie and I had rehearsed several times that morning before school what she should do next. She was a good actress, showing a demeanor no different than any casino gambler down on her luck.

After Robbie’s next two tosses tied Jackie Bob’s efforts, he became petulant. After several more tosses didn’t go Jackie Bob’s way, he totally lost his cool.

“You’re cheating!” he yelled at Robbie.

“I am not,” she said evenly.

“Are!”

“Not!”

Afraid the disagreement might turn physical, I stepped forward, pretending to be an interfering adult, and said, “You children shouldn’t fight over some silly game.”

“Who asked you to butt in?” Jackie Bob said nastily.

“Yeah,” Robbie said. “Go mind your own business.” A chorus of jeers from the other players supported her.

I shrugged and backed off a bit. “You really should learn to get along better. But if you can’t be friendlier, I’m going to call the police.” That really made me the heavy.

“I’m not interested in being friendly with any old cheater,” Robbie said.

“You’re the cheater,” Jackie Bob said.

“No way!” Robbie said, getting up into his face.

“Yeah, well I say it’s you.” He jabbed a finger into her shoulder.

“Back off, Jackie Bob!”

“You even took my lucky penny.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“You did!”

“Hold it!” I interjected. “Can you prove which penny is yours?” I asked Jackie Bob.

“I sure can. It’s over there next to the wall.”

“How can you be so sure?” I asked.

“Get ‘em and I’ll show you. Mine’s the really dirty one.”

“What about your penny?” I asked Robbie.

“Mine’s an old one, too, all cruddy…and I didn’t swipe his old penny.”

“Okay, what do you say we go over and look at both pennies,” I said.

“Why?” Jackie Bob demanded.

“Just because.” It was a standard adult reason, which no one questioned. “Why don’t you go over and get it,” I told Jackie Bob.

“Go get ‘em yourself,” he said.

“No, then everyone might think I switched coins; better if we all went.”

Reluctantly, he went off with me, Robbie, and the other players.

“Pick up your pennies,” I told Robbie and Jackie Bob.

“What date is yours?” I asked Jackie Bob.

He held it up. “It’s too dirty; I can’t see,” he said, showing it to the others, who nodded in response.

“Okay, but just for fun, try really hard to read the date,” I said.

He glared at me, used fingernail to scratch at the face of the penny, and said, “It’s a…a…nineteen-forty-three.”

I nodded at Robbie. “Now you do the same.”

She picked up her penny, used a fingernail on the face of it, and said, “Nineteen-forty-three.”

“No way!” Jackie Bob yelled.

I was pretty sure he was getting an inkling of what was going on.

“She…she shouldn’t have one, too,” he said.

“Why not?”

“I’m going to be late for school,” he said.

“But the game isn’t over, is it?” I asked.

“It’s over,” he said. “She didn’t lose anything.”

“Not today, I didn’t,” Robbie said and stepped in front of him so he couldn’t leave. “You have thirteen dollars of mine…and you cheated to get it.”

“Prove it!”

“Okay, I will.”

She gave me her penny and I handed her a small screwdriver. She stooped down and used the screwdriver to dig up a small metal bar.

“What’s going on?” Jackie Bob said.

She faced Jackie Bob. “Hold out your hand with the penny in it.”

“No!”

“I think you should do as she asks.” I took his penny and held it in my open hand with Robbie’s. She waved the metal bar slowly over my palm; both pennies jumped up and stuck to the metal bar.

“With either of these pennies,” Robbie said, “and with this metal bar back in the ground, I can beat anyone here.”

“A magnet!” someone yelled.

“Don’t be stupid,” Jackie Bob said. “Copper don’t stick to magnets.”

“These pennies aren’t copper,” Robbie said.

“Right,” I said. “Jackie Bob’s little trick only works with nineteen-forty-three pennies; the only ones ever made of steel.”

* * *

I was in my garage waxing the Porsche when Robbie came by the next day after school.

“You’re terrific, Mr. Rolfe!” she said.

“Thank you.”

“I want to know how much more I owe you.”

“Then I take it you’re pleased with the results of my investigation?”

“Absolutely.”

“Have you told your parents yet what happened?”

“Uh, not yet.” She gave me her squinched-face look. “But I will. Honest!”

“Good.”

She twisted around and ran her fingers through her short hair. “Mr. Rolfe, I feel kinda sorry for Jackie Bob? Like, everyone’s giving him a bad time for cheating.”

“Don’t you think he deserves it?”

“I suppose. But it’s all over as far as I’m concerned.”

“I hope no one gets too angry and tries to hurt him,” I said.

“That’s how I feel,” she said. “The way you showed him up hurt him already.”

“I like your thinking.”

She scuffed the garage floor with one sneaker, then the other. “I’ve been thinking real hard about all of this,” she said.

“Oh?”

“Yeah! I think you charge a lot more than the eight dollars I gave you.”

“That depends. I told you at the beginning that different jobs have different rates. As long as you think you got your money’s worth, that’s what counts with me.”

“Oh, I do. I really do.”

“That being the case, I have a proposition for you.”

“What kind of proposition?”

I reached into my pocket and retrieved a twenty-dollar bill I’d put there earlier in anticipation of her visit.

“If you promise me you won’t gamble again until you’re an adult, and if you show up here the next two Saturdays to help me clean the house and do some grocery shopping, I’ll advance you this twenty-dollar bill to help solve your original problem.”

Her response was one of the nicest hugs I’ve ever received.

J. J. Lamb’s journalism career was interrupted by the U.S. Army, which provided a Top Secret clearance; a locked room with table, chair, typewriter … and enough privacy to write short stories. Next, a paperback PI series featuring gaming consultant Zachariah Tobias Rolfe III, followed by collaboration with wife Bette Golden Lamb to produce three gritty medical thrillers: BONE DRY, SIN & BONE, and SISTERS IN SILENCE, and a suspense-adventure-romance, HEIR TODAY … . He and Bette make their home in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more on his website.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Pen M January 31, 2013 at 12:32am

Really enjoyed this!!! 😉

Reply

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