Please enjoy this excerpt from Gallows Hill by Rory O’Brien.
Crime Watch meetings were held one Thursday a month in the auditorium downstairs at the station, and each month a different uniformed officer and detective were assigned to act as “community liaisons.” The higher-ups felt that it helped with police transparency and accountability, and improved community relations. Each month, the assigned officers supplied increasingly creative excuses for being unable to attend, few of which ever worked. The meetings were usually poorly attended, with the same dozen or so loudmouths complaining about missing recycling bins, the damn tourists, the noisy neighbors, and old grievances they would never let be forgotten nor resolved.
Lennox got a pad and pens from his desk, and trudged downstairs for seven o’clock, ready to be introduced as that month’s Community Liaison Officer.
When he opened the door to the auditorium, he realized tonight’s meeting would be completely different.
The room was packed, standing room only. His heart sank as he scanned the crowd. Three city council members, and several local reporters were scattered around the auditorium, amid the usual gadflies, rabble-rousers, and concerned taxpayers. A couple of Boston news stations had set up cameras along the back wall; at a second glance, he noticed one from New York.
Worst of all, the mayor and the president of the city council were seated at opposite ends of the front row.
Tobias Pyncheon had been mayor of Salem for as long as anyone could remember. He was a scion of one of the city’s old money families, and with his bushy silver hair swept back from his square face, he had the good looks of a mildly scandalous movie star. He was known to be fond of single malt scotch, double-breasted silk suits, and expensive foreign cars, one of which—a soot-black Jaguar—was rakishly parked outside the station.
Pyncheon lived in a home on the water with a bleach-blonde wife less than half his age.
At the opposite end of the row was Council President Jake-never-Jacob Gilman. Gilman’s cargo pants and blue shirt, sleeves rolled up and tie pulled loose, were every bit as carefully chosen as Pyncheon’s Italian suit, meant to underscore the man-of-the-people image that had won him his seat on the council. The shortcomings and excesses of the Pyncheon administration were his favorite target.
“Crap,” Lennox murmured.
The meeting was called to order and the usual business was dispensed with quickly. Lennox was introduced and he rose stiffly to his feet, smiling, and feeling as thought he had just been thrown to a pack of very hungry, self-righteous wolves.
“What can you tell us about the body you found?” someone immediately called out.
“I am unable to comment on ongoing investigations, but we are working around the clock and pursuing several very promising lines of inquiry,” he said, falling back on the traditional boilerplate. He wondered if he could possibly pop a Xanax into his mouth unnoticed. “We ask for your support and cooperation as we move forward with the investigation. If anyone has any information—”
“Who was he?” a voice called.
“Again, I cannot comment on an ongoing investigation, but—”
“You all know that my administration has always been tough on crime, and I have been in close touch with the Chief of Police and his men since Monday morning,” Pyncheon said, sweeping to his feet and turning to face the cameras more than the crowd. “If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times—Salem has the finest police force in the Commonwealth, and I know they are very close to making an arrest in this case. The streets of this city are safe, ladies and gentlemen, thanks to the hard work of our police officers—”
“Work you have made more and more difficult for them to do every year,” Gilman shouted back. “The last budget the city council submitted to you increased funding to the police department and you vetoed it! It took months of negotiating before we could pass a budget because of you, and everyone in this city knows it. This great city is teetering on the brink because of the failed policies of the Pyncheon administration…”
Lennox closed his eyes. He remembered the budget in question, and the funding increase for the department had been minimal. It would never have covered the cost of hiring new officers; the department might have been able to afford a photocopier. Or a whiteboard. They were both, as usual, trying to be the hero and hoping that everyone forgot the details. It wasn’t surprising that these two were using a man’s murder to take shots at one another, but it was appalling. Pyncheon wasn’t there to reassure the citizens—he was there because there were cameras. And Gilman was there because Pyncheon was there.
“We wish this unknown visitor to our city to be surrounded by white light as he takes his first steps on his last great journey,” intoned Magnus Moon, slowly rising.
Magnus was a portly middle-aged man with long dyed-black hair and a melodramatic leather coat. And black Reeboks. Around his neck was a jumble of amulets, crystals, and pentagrams, and one hand rested on an ebony walking stick with a silver wolf’s head handle. Magnus was a well-known local character, perennial candidate for various political offices, and utter egomaniac. Magnus always sounded strangely rehearsed, and Lennox could easily imagine the man practicing his delivery in front of a mirror at home.
“We can only hope the myrmidons of the police force are able to bring the evil-doer behind the deed to swift justice!” Magnus concluded, with a slight bow toward Lennox.
“We’ll certainly do our best. We don’t let people get away with murder in Salem. So again, if any of you have any information—”
“While you are here, inspector, might we once again raise the question of the offensive nature of the crass caricature which serves as the very symbol of your constabulary?” Magnus interrupted, pointing at the Salem PD emblem hanging from the podium at the front of the room.
The emblem was a silhouetted witch on a broom, with a flowing dress and conical hat. It appeared on every police officer’s uniform, on the side of every cruiser, and on every sheet of departmental stationery, and had for years. Similar images could be found on sweatshirts, shot glasses, and signs hanging outside of half the businesses in town, and even on the water tank atop Gallows Hill. It was the target of Magnus’s long-standing ire.
“Can we truly feel protected and served by a gendarmerie which openly mocks and trivializes the religious heritage and beliefs of a significant portion of our citizenry, inspector?”
Groans from the audience indicated that they had heard all this before.
“It’s detective, actually,” Lennox corrected, “and the emblem is a recognizable symbol of the police department, which neither mocks nor trivializes anything—”
“Oh don’t even listen to him, detective,” cried a voice in the crowd. “Everyone knows what a dingbat he is!”
“So you do have a suspect?” someone else asked.
“Again, I cannot comment—”
“Why won’t you tell us… detective?” Magnus smiled suspiciously, and all but licked his lips.
“Oh shut the hell up,” a woman in a flannel shirt yelled. “Things like this wouldn’t happen here if you people weren’t always trying to turn the city into a goddamn carnival.”
“Do you know what it does to my property values to have a bunch of freaks across the street chanting at midnight?” a man called. Lennox recognized him; he’d seen him at these meetings before. His obsession with property values made him a weird kind of idiot savant.
“Property values in Salem have consistently risen every quarter for the last several years,” Pyncheon interjected. “And Salem remains a world-class tourist destination, welcoming visitors from every corner of the globe.”
“Freaks?” Magnus retorted. “Religious intolerance is alive and well in Salem, we see! Still trying to weed out the undesirables, are we?”
Lennox had never actually heard an audience boo someone before. Yeah, he thought, this is going really well.
“Oh, please. Nobody’s trying to hang you, you freak.”
The babble of angry voices echoed in the room as the torches and pitchforks came out. Lennox screwed his eyes shut, rapidly approaching the point where he wouldn’t care if anyone saw him slipping a Xanax.
“Okay, thank you all very much,” he yelled, trying to get some tiny measure of control back. “Does anyone else have anything?”
“So are you looking at the witches or not?” someone called. “I heard he had pentagrams on his palms. Think one of them could have did it? That’s where I’d start if I was you guys.”
“I heard he was some relative of Cotton Mather?” yet another voice called. “What about that?”
Lennox’s breath caught in his throat. How did that get out? Dammit, Salem was too small. Everyone knew someone somewhere. Everyone had a cousin or an old high school buddy on the police force. Word would always get around.
“None of us have a hand in this business,” Magnus Moon insisted, laying a pious hand upon his breast.
“I heard my neighbor arguing with someone on Sunday,” a man said. “I got up to look out my window to see what’s going on. I didn’t recognize him, but I could probably identify him if I saw him again.”
“You son of a bitch,” the neighbor cried from the other side of the room. “You were all pissed off I put out my recycling too early last week and now you tell the cops I murdered someone?”
“Hey, I’m just saying you argued with someone and I haven’t seen him since. Guilty conscience much?”
“That was my brother, jackass.”
“What about the woman in white?” an elderly woman in the third row asked. “Have you spoken to her?”
“No,” Lenox replied. “Who are you talking about, please?”
“The last few nights, since you found the body, she comes out to the park and lights a candle on that spot. You haven’t spoken to her yet? She must know something.”
“We will talk to her. Anything else? Okay, thanks everyone.”
He waded through the crowd, pushing through a side door into a dim corridor, only to find Mayor Pyncheon waiting for him. Pyncheon was a head taller, and loomed.
“Listen to me,” the mayor said, lowering his face a few inches from Lennox’s own. “This is a fucking tourist town, and if people think they’ll get killed if they come here, they won’t come here. Do you fucking understand? Figure this thing out. Arrest someone. Anyone.”
Gilman closed the door quietly behind him as he entered. He folded his arms and looked on disapprovingly.
“I was just explaining to Detective Lennox here that we need to see an arrest. This week. And I hope he doesn’t have to shoot anyone this time.”
Pyncheon slammed the door behind him as he went.
Gilman shook his head.
“You know, for once I agree with that asshole,” he said bitterly.
* * *
The clock on the bullpen wall showed 8:20 when Lennox arrived back upstairs. Being a detective in Salem was pretty close to a 9-to-5 job; there was usually no night shift and so the CID was dark and silent. He tossed his blank pad onto his desk and sighed, running his hands over his pale face. He had meant to take notes, but couldn’t with all the interruptions and accusations and the politicians and Magnus Moon doing their usual big-man-on-campus act.
Well, that was a complete disaster, he thought. No useful information had come forward, just rumors and accusations, and he had been unable to calm the residents’ fears. Half of them probably thought he was an idiot, and the other half probably thought he was keeping the real story from them. This was how hysteria started, he mused, how it spread to engulf an entire city, and Salem had seen enough of that already. Things changed so little in three centuries.
Goodwife Bacagalupi signed her name in the Black Man’s book and doesn’t sort her recycling…
And his appearance in front of a packed room of citizens and reporters, with news cameras rolling, speaking on behalf of the Salem Police Department, meant that his was now the face of the investigation in the public’s mind. So… that was a disaster.
He reached into his drawer for a blister pack of pills, but put them down and slammed the drawer shut. He didn’t want to admit just how badly he wanted one.
* * *
He left the station, and headed out to Gallows Hill Park. It was about a mile, and although much of it wasn’t a particularly scenic route, he needed a walk.
When he first arrived in Salem almost a decade ago with his wife and their daughter, he had set out to walk down every street in the city, exploring his new home, committing it all to memory. It had taken six weeks, but he had done it, and now had a map of the city in his head. Then he took every walking tour in town. And when he had finished taking those, he read guidebooks, then history books—anything to help get a handle on his new city, his new home. And still, years later, being out in the old streets and lanes and squares, feeling the city beneath his feet, was always somehow soothing.
The tourists had begun to arrive in force earlier in the week, and their numbers would only swell as Halloween approached. But tonight was quiet; tourists usually stayed downtown, flocking to places where they could spend money, whether on a restaurant or a psychic reading, on a walking tour or a haunted house, so Gallows Hill would be empty, or nearly so. A silent twilight had spread out over the hill and the fields as he arrived.
There she was, as if waiting for him. The woman in white.
She stood by a small pile of tokens and gifts that had been left at the site over the past week—flowers and little white crosses, pentagrams and hand-written notes. The light from a white seven-day candle, beeswax in a glass cylinder, illuminated her serene features. She stood with her eyes closed. Her long white coat was buttoned to her throat and reached down to her ankles. She wore a broad-brimmed white hat, with white boots and a long ivory scarf. Lennox wondered how she managed to keep it all so spotlessly clean. The light from the candle made her blonde hair shine like dark gold. A quick glance showed no jewelry, no cross, no pentagram, nothing. No indication.
“Hello there,” he said tentatively.
She opened her eyes and nodded. “Hello.”
“I understand that you’ve been coming out here each night since the police found that body.”
“Yes” she said, taking her eyes from the candle and turning to face him. Her eyes were a soft gray. “I must.”
“Why is that?”
“To burn the candle, to remember him, to hope that the police find his killer.”
“Did you know him?” Lennox asked hopefully.
“No,” she shook her head.
Damn, he thought.
“But he should be remembered,” she said. “Taking a life is blasphemy; leaving the body here is desecration. It warrants a punishment beyond which any earthly justice can exact.”
She turned back to the candle, and closed her gray eyes.
Lennox walked away, thinking that this strange woman was absolutely right.
–end Chapter VI–