SomeoneInThisRoomUniformed police first on the scene at the downtown Cotton Hotel were going to mark Theodore Duke off as a suicide. “Another poor drunk couldn’t take misery any longer.”

My partner Austin Roberts and I were working day shift Homicide Division. We found Theodore Duke, 68, sprawled face up on the bed in his cruddy skid-row hotel room. Strangled with a pillow case still around his neck. A tooth showed through a lacerated lip.

His trousers were twisted around to reveal a gaping rear pocket. It was empty.


A newspaper on the bed, a rent receipt, the knot in the ligature, and a roll-yer-own cigarette butt on the floor led us to suspect a stocky maintenance man who worked at the hotel.

Contrary to CSI, most murders are not solved by science. Only about one in a hundred is busted by anything other than simple, old-fashioned footwork.

I favored my partner with a tight grin when I spotted a can of Prince Albert roll-yer-own tobacco in the maintenance man’s shirt pocket.

“Old as you are, Austin,” I chided, “surely you remember the old detective movies on TV where the bright young detective solves the case in a surprise ending in the vestibule. The butler always does it.”

I turned to my suspect. He was as tight as a coiled spring. “Round up the hotel tenants and have them assemble in the lobby.”

It was an unusual gathering in that seedy hotel—a horse-faced man; the hotel manager with her crewcut and yellow tie; a paraplegic; a fat woman; some drunks; the pensioners. . .

They watched expectantly as I took the center of the floor.

“I suppose you wonder why I’ve called you here today,” I began. Roberts hid a grin.

I assumed a pose, hands clasped behind my back as I slowly and thoughtfully strolled around the circle of tenants, stopping before each to ask a question the answer to which I already knew. I finally reached the important one.

“Who,” I asked of the witness standing next to my suspect Houck, “can move anywhere in the hotel without being particularly noticed?”

From the corner of my eye, I observed Bill Houck wringing his hands and licking his lips.

I walked the length of the room, ostensibly deep in thought.

“The reason I called you all here,” I said in a flat voice, “is to let you know that someone in this room killed Mr. Duke.”

I worked my way around the witness circle toward my suspect, stopping before each resident to reveal a piece of the puzzle.

“Mr. Duke was killed for his money. . . The man who killed him was in the lobby when he paid his rent. . . Mr. Duke resisted. . .The killer hit him in the face. . . The killer grabbed the pillow case and strangled Mr. Duke to death. . .”

Houck was staring at me. He looked panicked.

I moved casually in his direction. Quite obviously, he was wishing he were somewhere else.

“The killer is standing in the lobby at this very moment,” I said, halting directly in front of Houck. “The man who killed Mr. Duke smokes roll-yer-own cigarettes.”

Houk’s hand reflexively leaped to conceal the tobacco can in his shirt pocket. Blood drained from his face. Eyes in the lobby riveted in terror on the maintenance man. I took one slow step forward and jabbed an accusing finger into Houck’s chest.

“You killed Mr. Duke!” I said in the most dramatic voice I could muster.

Bill Houck subsequently confessed to the homicide and was sentenced to life in prison.

“After this election, there will be no future elections in which the outcome is in doubt. We will control voting—or at least the counting of votes. . .” From Charles W. Sasser’s A Thousand Years of Darkness, the action thriller based on current events.