by Dorothy Francis
This story has been previously published, and won a Derringer Award in 1999 awarded by the Short Mystery Fiction Society.
Bessie Jackson smoothed her worn skirt and fluffed her hair into a white halo. She had saved this black dress for Sundays and D. A. R. meetings ever since she retired years ago. She didn’t waste her teacher’s pension on clothes. Instead, she bought postage stamps and entered contests.
Charles and Janell, her son and daughter-in-law, wanted her to have her roof re-shingled, her rusty sink replaced and the hall closet door repaired. No way. Buckets caught the roof leaks. The sink drained properly, so she didn’t care if it was a bit rusty. And she knew the whims of that closet door. Thanks to the postage stamps and the contest entries, she had won the trip of her life.
Hurrying to the telephone, she answered it quickly.
“Mother,” Charles said. “I’ve stopped payment on that check to Terrific Tours. It’s a scam!”
“Charles! You didn’t! I’ll call the bank immediately and tell them to let the check go through.”
“The extra money’s for insurance, transfers, side-trips – those little extras that mean so much. A nice gentleman, Mr. Monroe, explained all that to me, Charles. You needn’t worry.”
“I’m looking out for your best interests, Mother. If you continue to act irrationally, Janell and I will have to consider placing you in a home. Your mind isn’t as sharp as it once was. No fault of yours, of course. It just happens as people grow older.”
Bessie slammed the receiver down. A home indeed! She might be old, but she wasn’t senile! And she really didn’t need to write a check. She had a nest egg hidden under her mattress. She could pay Terrific Tours in cash.
Bessie smiled. The hundreds of contests she had entered over the years had led to this grand moment. And even though she had won little before this, entering contests had helped her pass her time.
She hated to admit her loneliness. Of course, she wasn’t critical of Charles and Janell. They lived clear across the city. It was wonderful of them to telephone her on holidays, but she hated their nagging about home repairs. Worse yet, just last week Charles had urged her to put her spare money into nursing home insurance. Fat chance!
She pulled the letter from her pocket. YOU, BESSIE JACKSON, ARE A WINNER. It was almost too good to be true. She touched the “Prize Winner’s Handbook” in her pocket. It had certainly been worth the little money she had paid for it at the newsstand years ago. Until this week, she had won only a radio and a set of pottery, but now she had hit the jackpot. A trip to Italy! The trip of her dreams. Soon she would get to see all the exotic places she had taught her students about in world history classes. She dreamed of sailing on the Tiber, climbing up the Spanish Steps, touring of the Coliseum. The Arch of Constantine. The Circus Maximus. St. Peter’s Square. She could hardly wait to see it all. And the food. Pasta. Pasta. And more pasta.
She watched Jake Monroe park his Lexus at the curb and walk to her door. Tall. Muscular. She tried to ignore his grubby ponytail, his faded jeans and sweatshirt, the stud in his earlobe. Young people dressed like that these days. She opened the door with a flourish even before he knocked.
“How are you today, Mrs. Jackson?” Jake smiled as he stepped into her living room. “I’ve come to help you sign the final contest papers and to pick up your check.”
“Well, there has been a slight change of plans,” Bessie said.
Jake scowled. “I’m sorry to hear that, but if I don’t get your check now, I’ll have to award your prize trip to the first runner-up.”
“Please, Mr. Monroe, don’t do that. That prize means everything to me. I can’t give you a check now, but . . . please sit down and let’s talk a bit.”
“Please, Mr. Monroe, listen to me. You’d take cash, wouldn’t you? I’ll pay right now if you’ll take cash. Or if you’d rather, I’ll open an account in a new bank and write you a check on that bank. Please give me a chance to make things right.”
Jake smiled and stopped dialing. “No need for a new bank account. Of course, I’ll take cash. Show me the money and we’ll sign the papers.”
Show me the money. Something about Jake’s slang, his oily voice and the smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes made Bessie nervous. And afraid. Charles had always warned her that cash deals spelled danger.
“Tell me more about the trip.” Bessie stalled, hoping she was wrong about this man. “Will I get to see the Spanish Steps?”
“Of course. Of course.”
Bessie smiled. “I plan to climb all 137 of them. I’ve dreamed about seeing that landmark all my life. And the Coliseum, the Circus Maximus.”
Now Jake smiled more broadly. “I understand there were baths in Rome where a thousand people could bathe at one time. Just one thousand dollars will insure your trip, Mrs. Jackson.”
Bessie felt herself relax. Jake Monroe knew Rome. She had been crazy to doubt him.”
“And the Arch of Constantine? I’ll see that?”
“You’ll drive beside the Tigris River in a limousine,” Jake promised. “You’ll see every historical landmark in Rome. Then a motor coach will take you to Florence. And on to Venice. Now get me the cash.”
Bessie felt her stomach knot in fear. “Maybe I should wait until tomorrow. I need to talk to my son.”
“No more stalling.” Jake stepped so close she could smell beer on his breath. She backed away. He eased closer almost pushing into her. Another step and she’d be pinned to the wall.
She managed to slip around Jake and reach for the telephone, but he smashed her forearm with the edge of his hand. Pain shot to her elbow.
Bessie felt her face flush. Charles and Janell had been right. A scam! She had won nothing. Maybe she did need a nursing home – a keeper. She took a step toward the door, but Jake grabbed her arm and twisted.
“You don’t want your arm in a cast, do you?” He leered at her. “Get the cash. Now.”
“It’s in my purse.” Bessie clenched her teeth against the pain. She wouldn’t let him see her cry.
Jake released her arm. “Then get your purse.”
“My arm.” Bessie rubbed her elbow. “Please get my purse for me. The black one. It’s under my coat on a hook in the hall closet. The big hook to the back.”
When Jake stepped inside the closet, Bessie slammed the door. In seconds, Jake was pounding and shouting.
“Let me out of here, you hag! Open this door!
“Bessie rushed to the telephone and dialed 911, glad she had ignored Charles’s advice to have that closet lock repaired before she accidentally locked herself inside.
The police arrived quickly, taking Jake Monroe into custody.
“Mrs. Jackson,” one officer said. “Your quick thinking has helped us catch a ring of thieves who prey on the elderly. How did you read this man as a scam artist?”
“His ignorance give him away, Sir. It’s the Tiber River that’s in Rome, not the Tigris.”
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