At eight p.m. retired schoolteacher Fran Valentine emerged from the hotel where her quilting conference was being held, and stepped out under the streetlights. She found a curbside bench, sat down, and checked her watch. Predictably, her dinner companion–Sheriff Lucy Valentine–was late. Not that Fran could complain: Lucy, who happened to also be Fran’s daughter, had been kind enough to allow her mother to hitch a ride here to the state capital with her. Still, Fran didn’t like to be kept waiting.
When Sheriff Valentine finally arrived, she didn’t offer an apology. Instead she said, “Hear about the murder?”
“What murder?” It also irked Fran that Lucy was spending most of her time with the city’s chief of police, who happened to be an old school buddy. Fran was missing out on all the good stuff.
The sheriff pointed across the street to the Chatsworth Building. “An hour ago, the head of an advertising agency was shot, at his desk on the fourteenth floor of that high-rise. Good thing is, they already have the killer.”
Fran turned to look up at the building. “Caught in the act, or what?”
“The process of elimination. The only ad people who hadn’t yet signed out with the lobby receptionist–the agency’s in room 1401, and takes up almost all of that floor–were the boss and two employees. The first, Nancy Wicker, says she saw her boss fall dead at his desk, shot three times by someone in the hallway. She didn’t see the shooter. The other employee, Bob Barksdale, says he’d already left the office and heard the shots while he was on the elevator going down. The point is, the entire fourteenth floor was dark at the time. Since Nancy Wicker says the lights were on, she was lying. She’s already been taken into custody.”
“That sounds pretty lame,” Fran said. “Does anyone know for sure that the lights were off?”
“We do, but only by a stroke of luck. One of the sergeants from the police station had just left for home and was walking down this street when he heard three distant gunshots, happened to look up, and saw that a whole floor of the Chatsworth Building had its lights out. Thinking fast, he snapped a picture with his cell phone, and sure enough, it shows the fourteenth floor completely dark.” The sheriff took out her own cell phone and showed her mother the photo she’d asked one of the police officers to e-mail to her. “Look–everything’s lit up except the windows on that floor. If you count floors starting from the bottom, you’ll see that it’s fourteen.”
Fran studied the photo. Her daughter was right.
“But why were the lights out at all? Power failure? Did the killer switch them off?”
“Who knows. All we know is that the whole floor was dark.”
“Interesting,” Fran said. “How about motive?”
“They’ve found that Nancy Wicker had been passed over twice for promotion, and Barksdale owed the boss some big money. Either could’ve wanted him dead.” Lucy sighed. “It’s pretty clear-cut, Mother. Only two people were up there with the boss when he died, and one of those two people–Ms. Wicker–was lying about what happened.”
“If the lights were off,” Fran said.
Sheriff Valentine held up the phone. “That photo proves they were. It’s even time-stamped.”
“Has anybody asked if there were power problems elsewhere in the building?”
“They’re checking. But the picture shows that all the windows on the other floors were lit up, bright as day.”
Fran thought a moment, frowning. Then she blinked. “That depends on how you count the floors.”
“What?” Lucy said.
“You better call the Chief. I think Nancy Wicker was right–and if she was, they arrested the wrong person.”
“Why do you think so?”
“Because the lights in 1401 were on.”
“How do you figure that?”
Fran pointed to the phone. “The unlighted floor–the line of dark windows the photo-taker saw–was indeed fourteen floors up from the ground, but its offices would be numbered 1501, 1502, etc.”
“Think about it, Lucy. For superstitious reasons, most tall buildings don’t list, include, or acknowledge a thirteenth floor.”
The sheriff blinked, frowned, and–finally–nodded. “You’re right,” she said. Together, they both turned and stared up again at the building.
“I bet we look like first-time visitors to the big city,” she added, still craning her neck.
Fran grinned. “Must be all the lights.”
John M. Floyd’s work has appeared in more than 250 different publications, including AHMM, EQMM, Strand Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, and The Best American Mystery Stories. John is also a three-time Derringer Award winner and an Edgar nominee. His seventh book, The Barrens, is scheduled for summer 2018.
Copyright © 2018 John M. Floyd. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited.