Detective Wendy Murtaugh walked through the door of the West Side Coin Shop.
“Thank goodness you’re here!” exclaimed shop owner Carlton Clark. “My most valuable coin, a 1943 copper penny, is missing. I found a ransom note in its place.”
“What makes this coin so valuable?” Wendy asked.
“Because of material shortages during World War Two, almost all pennies in 1943 were made of steel. A copper penny from that year is extraordinarily rare. One recent sale netted over a hundred thousand dollars.”
“Quite a pretty penny,” said Wendy. “Can I take a look at the ransom note?”
Carlton handed her a standard sheet of 8.5 x 11 paper.
In exchange for the return of your 1943 copper penny, place twenty thousand dollars in small, unmarked bills in an ordinary briefcase. Friday night at 20:00 bring the money to the fountain in Veterans Park and take a seat on the north-facing bench. You will receive additional instructions.
“Why would the thief offer back a coin that’s worth five times the ransom?” Wendy asked.
“The collector community is close-knit,” Carlton said. “Any attempt to sell the penny would be reported immediately.”
“Makes sense.” Wendy proceeded to inspect the doors, windows, and the safe for signs of forced entry, but found none. “This looks like an inside job. Who has access to your store and the safe?”
“I have three employees,” Carlton said. “But they’re well-compensated; I’m no penny pincher. I can’t imagine any of them would be involved.”
“I’d like to chat with them. Maybe one of them is a bad penny,” Wendy said.
“Of course,” said Carlton. “You can conduct your interviews in my office.”
The first employee Wendy interviewed was Marjorie Collingswood, the Assistant Manager. “The copper is looking for a copper?” she asked in a deep Texas twang. “Surely, you can’t suspect me?”
“We’re looking at everyone,” Wendy said. “What did you do before you came to work for Mr. Clark?”
“I’ve been a stay-at-home mom since I graduated college,” Marjorie said. “This is my first job since Lincoln, that’s my son, has been old enough to watch himself.”
Next up was Gabriel Bisset, one of the salesclerks. “If you want my two cents, Detective, Marjorie is the one you should be investigating,” he said in a thick French accent.
“I’m talking to all the employees,” Wendy said. “What did you do before working here?”
“In France, I was a baker, made a lot of bread. Then in America, I dig for clams, but the pay is no good. So, I took this job.”
Last up was the other salesperson, Anna DiBernardo. “Why am I here? Did somebody drop a dime on me?” she asked a in heavy Brooklyn accent.
“I’m talking with everyone who had access to the safe,” said Wendy. “What kind of work did you do before you came to the coin shop?”
Anna shrugged. “I’ve worked retail most of my life: five-and-dime shops, dollar stores. Nothing like this has ever happened before.”
After Anna left the room, Carlton asked, “A penny for your thoughts, Detective?”
Wendy popped a stick of mint gum into her mouth. “Is there a place where your employees keep their belongings?”
“Yes, they all have lockers in the break room,” Carlton said.
“Let’s go take a look.”
In the break room, Wendy asked, “Which locker is Gabriel’s?”
“You can’t search my locker without a warrant. I know my rights!” Gabriel yelled.
“Actually, it’s not your locker. It belongs to the shop. Okay if I have a look?” she asked Carlton.
The shop owner shrugged. “Sure.”
Wendy dug through the locker, tossed aside a pair of empty boxes, and reached in deep. She pulled out a cloth bag the size of her hand. She un-cinched the bag, turned it over, and shook. The penny, still in its protective case, dropped into her open palm.
“But how did you know?” Carlton asked.
Wendy smiled. “The ransom note expressed time in twenty-four-hour clock time — 20:00 vs. 8:00pm. That format isn’t common in the United States, but it’s standard in Continental Europe and the US military. None of the three served in the military, but Gabriel is from France.”
James Blakey’s fiction has appeared in Mystery Weekly, Crimson Streets, and Over My Dead Body. His story ‘The Bicycle Thief’ won a 2019 Derringer Award. He lives in suburban Philadelphia where he works as a network engineer for a software consulting company. When James isn’t working or writing, he can be found on the hiking trail — he’s climbed thirty-eight of the fifty US state high points — or bike-camping his way up and down the East Coast. James is a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Find him at www.JamesBlakeyWrites.com.