Ethan spotted them the moment he stepped off the train. They were the same two women he chatted with in his compartment the night before. Now his wallet was missing. He froze for a moment to see if they saw him. They were talking with a man who was writing something in a small notebook.
The tall blonde woman turned her head slightly and locked eyes with Ethan. She took her companion's arm by the elbow and started walking at a brisk pace toward the station house. Ethan started to follow them, but the man they had engaged in conversation stopped him.
"Excuse me, sir. I'd like to talk to you."
"I've no time at the moment. Now if you'll excuse me …" He saw the brunette stop at the station house door and glance at him. "I must go now. They're getting away."
The man who stopped him shoved a brass star in his face. "I'm Detective Nolan of the Clayton Police Department. And who might you be, sir?"
Ethan took a step back to take in the whole scope of this man. He was a few inches taller than Ethan's five foot ten inches, wider in the shoulders, and sported a full, graying, walrus-type mustache. "My name is Ethan Shaw. I have reason to believe those two women you were just speaking with might have stolen my wallet last night on the train."
The detective wrinkled his forehead and pursed his lips, his mustache covering his nostrils. "That's interesting. They are accusing you of almost the same thing."
"Yes, one of them claims you took a valuable necklace from her as she dozed in your compartment."
"Mind if I look in your suitcase, Mr. Shaw."
"Well, yes, I mind, but I have nothing to hide, so go ahead."
The two men walked to an empty luggage wagon by the side of the station. Ethan tossed his suitcase on it and stood back while Nolan opened the clasps. In less than thirty seconds, Nolan held up his hand with a woman's necklace dangling from one finger.
"Care to explain this?"
"I … I have no explanation. I've never seen that before."
"I'm afraid you're going to have to come down to the station with me, Mr. Shaw."
Ethan paced the small cell. Try as he might, he couldn't even remember either of the women wearing such a necklace as the detective found in his suitcase. Something strange was afoot, but he couldn't imagine what. Why would these women take his wallet and then leave an apparently valuable necklace in his suitcase?
Several hours later, Detective Nolan came into the small cellblock, made lots of clanging noises as he opened Ethan's cell door, and told Ethan to follow him to his office.
"Have a seat, Mr. Shaw." He offered Ethan a cigar, which was declined. He lit one for himself. "Just why are you in town, sir?"
"Why the St. Louis World's Fair, of course. Why are most people traveling into St. Louis these days? I have an aunt who lives here in Clayton, and she offered me the use of a spare bedroom if I wanted to see the fair. It's a short buggy ride from her house to Forest Park where the fair is being held. Finding a hotel room anywhere close to the fair grounds is impossible."
"So I've been told. That your only business at the fair, to see it?"
"I'm not sure I know what you mean."
"Events like this attract lots of con artists and hustlers."
"I can assure you, sir, I'm not one of them."
"Can you prove any of your story?" the detective said.
"Hum, …well I have the letter my aunt wrote to me offering a room. I kept it for the return address on it. I've never been to her house."
"And where's the letter?"
"In my suitcase."
"Mind if I look again?"
Nolan found the letter, scanned through it, and returned it to the suitcase.
"Satisfied?" Ethan said.
"Yes, I probably owe you an apology, but I'm trying to reconstruct each step of what happened."
"Yes, you see, one thing we have already determined is that the necklace is paste, no real diamonds as those two women claimed. Dime-store quality."
"So what does that mean?"
"They may have taken your wallet and then stashed the necklace in your suitcase to throw suspicion away from them while they made a clean get-a-way."
"And did they get away?"
"Unfortunately, yes. They are probably a couple of the con artists I mentioned before who are attracted to the fair." Nolan dumped the ashes from his cigar. "How much money was in your wallet, Mr. Shaw?"
"Around fifteen dollars."
"From what I'm told, that's not much money to use to see the fair."
Ethan's cheek's reddened. "I also have a money belt. There's no way they could have gotten that."
"Oh, you might be surprised. You're lucky they didn't find it or it would be gone, too. All I can do right now is take your aunt's address, and we'll contact you if we find out anything, but I must tell you in all honesty, the chances are not good. I'll have one of our men drive you to you aunt's house. At least that'll save you the expense of a drayman."
Ethan arrived at his aunt and uncle's house in time for a great dinner. As they sat on the front porch after eating, he told them about his disconcerting day.
The next morning, they instructed him on which streetcar to take to the fairgrounds. Ethan thought streetcars were great inventions, along with several of the machines people were calling horseless carriages. He had never seen either one before, let alone ride in or on one.
As he was strolling around the fair grounds trying to decide what to do next, he heard a familiar feminine voice. He was sure it was one of the women from the train, but they looked very different. He stood back some distance and watched them for several minutes. They were both wearing wigs of red hair and their faces were painted with cheek rouge and lipstick.
"My, my what a small world, isn't it?" he said as he approached them.
The tallest of the two put her hands to her face. "Don't have any idea what you're talking about, sir."
"Oh, I think you do. We're both here for the same reasons. Easy money. Those passes you're selling to ride the Ferris wheel all day tomorrow. Are they any good?"
"Sure. For only a nickel you can spend all day aboard Big Bertha."
"Will the owner of the wheel honor them?"
The girls looked at each other.
"I thought as much," Ethan said. "How much have you made today?"
"Almost five dollars."
"A paltry sum. If we work together, we can score a lot more."
"Women are easy targets, but if there are other women involved, they tend to be more trusting."
"So what's your idea?"
"I'll meet you both back here tomorrow. I'm going to bring two hundred and forty dollars with me." The girls shot each other a glance. Ethan knew that number was high enough to pique their interest.
"We will pretend to find a hundred and twenty dollars on the ground close to a lady we pick out to use. Our pigeon. When she denies it's hers, we'll offer to split it with her, but in order to be fair, we will each put up an equal amount of money to show good faith. We will then deposit all the money in the bank in an account under all our names, and say we will wait a couple of days to see if anyone claims the money. This is called a pigeon drop—find a pigeon, drop the money. Of course, as soon as possible, we will withdraw the money and split her hundred and twenty amongst ourselves."
"I don't think we could each come up with a hundred and twenty," the short girl said.
Ethan rubbed his chin. "Okay then, how about sixty each?"
"We could probably do that."
"This plan works every time," he assured them. "Greed takes over the human soul."
He got a smile from both of them.
"Then meet me back here tomorrow at noon, and we will start our process."
That evening, Ethan enjoyed another of his aunt's home cooked meals. The three of them sat on the front porch afterwards discussing what Ethan did that day and what was planned for tomorrow.
Ethan and the girls met right at noon. He picked out a lady walking by herself. He stopped her and pretended to pick up an envelope she might have dropped. The woman said it probably wasn't hers, but since he had found it by her, she should get some of it.
The plan was devised to put the money in the bank. The girls, who Ethan introduced as his sisters, put up a hundred and twenty dollars, and Ethan matched it. They all rode a street car to find a bank.
"There's one," the tall girl said.
"There's another just down the street," Ethan said. "I understand they're easier to work with."
The account was opened with smiles from everyone. Ethan put the deposit slip in his jacket pocket. As they were leaving the bank, Ethan pulled the two women aside. "I think this woman somewhat fancies me. I'm going to escort her home. Give us about a half hour to be far away, go get the money, and meet me tomorrow morning in front of Big Bertha, and we'll do the split. That okay with you?"
Ethan and the woman left.
"I've heard of people who are crazy as loons, but if he thinks we're going to get that money and then meet him to split it tomorrow, he's crazier than I thought he was," the tall girl said. "That money will get us any where we might decide to go." They both laughed.
As soon as Ethan's uncle got home from work, the three of them gathered under a shade tree in the back yard.
"So what happened when they came back in?" Ethan asked.
"Well," his uncle started, "I made myself scarce, but hid where I could see what was going on. I put my young teller back at the desk I occupied when you came in. Of course, there were no records of such an account—I had them in my pocket—and the two women proceeded to carry on like a couple of banshees. They insisted they get their money back, which the teller refused to do because they didn't have an account there. The teller finally called our security people to escort them from the bank. They were shouting they were going to call the police, but I knew that was a bluff they couldn't back up. What were they going to do? Call the police and say they stole some money and now the bank is refusing to give it back to them."
"And Aunt Lucy, you did a superb job of acting as our pigeon."
"Well, thank you, but I really shouldn't accept many compliments on it. Playing that part was the most fun I've had in years."
"Actually, I kind of enjoyed it myself," his uncle said. "Going from the bank president to a teller again was rejuvenating." He took an envelope from his pocket and tossed it to Ethan.
"How about if I give you both ten dollars for your trouble?" Ethan said.
"Taking money for having so much fun might be another crime," Aunt Lucy said.
"Well, after I get my original fifteen dollars back, we have a hundred and five left over. What do you propose we do with that?"
"Our church's orphanage fund could always use help," his aunt said.
Gary R. Hoffman, 73, of Okeechobee, Fla., says over 325 of his short stories have been published, including his latest collection, "I Haven't Lost My Marbles..." by Mockingbird Lane Press. Here are ways to contact him: email: firstname.lastname@example.org and http://www.authorgaryrhoffman.com.
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