The gavel is gone.
No clues. No leads. No ransom note.
Just a cheap imitation left in the original's place. Inconspicuously left on the table in the City Council chambers _ as if the mayor wouldn't notice it was a counterfeit.
"I knew right away it wasn't my gavel," Brooksville Mayor Pat Brayton said last week. "This definitely is not the one that was here two months ago. It's a phony."
It's a theft of the worst kind _ one in which the crook blatantly taunts the victim with the rip-off.
Each Monday when the mayor calls a council meeting to order, he is reminded that someone swiped the fancy hardwood gavel and left him with a bogus banger.
"I'm afraid if I pound this thing too hard it might break," Brayton said, clutching the fake gavel. "Feel it. I think it's made out of cheap balsa wood."
Truth be told, the gavel does feel like a cheapie. It's lightweight, and the dark-stained wood is covered with unsightly nicks. Certainly not a gavel befitting the city's highest elected official.
And the key piece of evidence: The gavel does not properly fit into its holder, which the bandit kindly left behind.
"See, it doesn't fit at all," Brayton demonstrated.
The crook was a pro, that's for sure. Not a single clue was left behind.
But don't think the city doesn't have suspects.
In between bi-monthly City Council meetings, the gavel sits in the dim, locked council chambers. Only certain city employees have keys.
But the chambers are used by several other groups and committees each week. So even seemingly innocent people like the members of Lions and Kiwanis clubs can't be ruled out.
"We've checked with everyone who used the room," Brayton said. "Everyone says they don't know anything about it."
So, what was the motive for the theft?
Brayton is guessing it all started as a crime of passion.
"My guess is that maybe someone got mad during their meeting and pounded the real gavel hard enough to break it," he said. "They were worried about saying something, so they replaced it with an imitation."
Brooksville police Capt. Ray Schumacher doesn't know what to make of the crime.
"I'm speechless," he said. "That's a new one."
Schumacher said he had never heard of a thief going to such lengths to cover up a misdemeanor.
"It's kind of like the Pink Panther leaving his calling card," he said. "Unfortunately, this is a lot more tacky."
The gavel has been gone for about eight weeks now. The trail is cold. The case is closed.
Still, the mayor can't help but wonder how his gavel disappeared.
"I just want to know what happened to it," he said.