Roger, dispatch, that’s a 187.
Jonah Rathbun sat up suddenly from where he’d been sitting, hunched over a keyboard writing up the obits for the morning edition. It was what the older staffers at the Salem Evening News called the graveyard shift: from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. Rookie reporters just beginning their careers in so called journalism didn’t call it anything but a pain in the butt.
Not that Rathbun was a rookie, however. He’d been in the newsprint business for almost 20 years now but it was only his dumb luck to be available tonight when no one seemed to be available to cover the night desk. It was the middle of summer after all and who wouldn’t rather be at the beach or pub crawling somewhere rather than at work? Just out of college and only dimly aware of how fickle the new economy could be, the paper’s shave tail contingent had a habit of making themselves scarce when the weather was particularly fine.
Such was the case this evening, for the whole week as a matter of fact, when daytime temps reached the nineties and the evenings the balmy mid-eighties. The breeze over the ocean at Hampton or Salsbury must have been particularly nice tonight, thought Rathbun, gazing out the office’s open windows. If he breathed deep, he could just smell a little of that sea air as it rose from off Palmer’s Cove and out Pickering Wharf way. But the evening’s charms no longer held the allure it used to when he was still single and could afford to call in ‘sick’ and stay out all night chasing tail at Hampton.
Instead, he’d said yes to old Jim Walther when the city editor had called him up earlier in the day asking if he’d fill in at the night desk tonight. Why not? There was nothing else much to do except fall asleep in front of the TV with Janice curled up on the couch beside him. It was pretty easy work anyway. Just listen to the police radio and write up anything that sounded interesting. In between, he worked up obituaries for the next day’s edition. No sweat.
That is, until the 187 came in.
That was police code for a homicide which meant he had to get on the phone to his contact at police headquarters.
After years of working on the paper, he knew the number by heart.
"Get me Lt. Hanley," he told the dispatcher who picked up. There was a brief wait and then Hanley’s tired voice came over the wire.
"Lt. Hanley here."
"Virgil; Jonah."
"I figured it was the newspaper."
"Then you know what I’m calling about."
There was the brief sound of pages being fluttered over the phone.
"Okay, here’s what I got."
"Shoot," said Rathbun, his fingers hovering over the keyboard of his computer.
"The victim was Caucasian, male, age between 35 and 45, place of residence Dean’s Corners where he apparently runs a farm." Hanley grunted. "And get this: his body was found in a room at the Hawthorne Hotel."
"Kinda swanky for a hick," said Rathbun, the phone’s receiver cradled against his shoulder. "Any idea what he was doing there?"
"According to officers on the scene, he was put up by the Peabody Institute."
"The museum people. Interesting."
"Officers were called to the scene when the body was discovered by room service. Apparently, the killing took place in the 15 minutes or so it took for the victim to call down for some towels and the time they were delivered. There was an open window to the room leading out to a narrow ledge. There’s no proof so far indicating that was the exit used by the killer."
"What was the guy’s name by the way?"
"Oh, yeah, right. Fredette. Barney…Barnard…Fredette."
"And how did he get it?"
"Head wound. The officer I spoke to said it looked like his head was crushed with a hatchet."
"That’s all I got."
"Okay, thanks Hanley." Rathbun hung up and typed in the last details quickly. Finished, he leaned back in his chair to consider what he’d written. Taking out a key chain from his pocket, he held onto the lucky piece on the end and began twirling the keys around. There were a number of interesting angles to this case in addition to the murder itself, he thought. Needing a break, he decided to make a coffee run before doing anything else with the story. Snapping the key chain to a standstill in the palm of his hand, he looked at the piece at the end. It was in the shape of some kind of a crouching figure that Rathbun was sure he’d seen in National Geographic once. When his cousin had given it to him for his birthday, he laughed, calling it a lucky piece. And who knew? Maybe it was.
Slipping the keys back into his pocket, he got up and, placing his hands on his hips, leaned back, and stretched tired muscles. Circling his desk, he headed for the lunch room.
Passing along the length of the editorial office, he noted a couple late arriving correspondents banging away at computer stations over in sports. He didn’t envy them having to cover Planning Board meetings that often went into the wee hours of the morning. Across the aisle over by the swanky offices of the publisher and editor in chief was Joe Keneely, the night copy editor, hunched over his computer screen checking over earlier stories submitted by the paper’s small force of independent correspondents.
At the end of the room, Rathbun ignored the door leading down to the press room and loading docks and veered right into the lunch room. There were a few round tables with plastic folding chairs scattered around and the lingering stink of some godawful TV dinner emanating from one of a pair of microwave ovens that hadn’t been cleaned in who knew how long.
Rathbun wrinkled his nose, glad he ate his bagged lunch at his desk on those days when he was working in the office. Over against a wall stood a few vending machines: one holding sandwich wedges, yogurts, and desiccated pastries, another had snacks, and a third offered a variety of hot drinks from coffee to the latest latte. As usual though, only a few of the functions worked. Luckily, black coffee was one of them.
He slipped a couple bucks into the machine and waited while it huffed and puffed and finally filled a Styrofoam cup with what Rathbun hoped was coffee. He took it out and gave it a tentative sip. It was.
Leaving the lunch room, he made his way back to Keneely and stopped by his desk, waiting to be recognized.
"What is it, Jonah?" asked Keneely, lifting his glasses onto his head.
"Got a murder reported on the police radio," said Rathbun. "There are some interesting details I’d like to follow up on to fill out the story."
"What are they?"
"The victim was a hick from Dean’s Corners who’d been put up at the Hawthorne by somebody at the Peabody," Rathbun summarized quickly. "I sounds to me like an unusual set up. I’d like to see if I can reach someone at the Peabody to find out more about it."
"Think you can reach someone this time of night?"
"I’ve got some good phone numbers."
"Okay, go ahead."
Back at his desk, Rathbun began a quick draft of the article that he’d flesh out some more after making some calls.
Then it happened again.
Dispatch. Car 12. We have a 10-54.
Rathbun swung to face the police radio as if to see something more than he was hearing. 10-54. That was a possible homicide.
10-4 car 12. Back up?
Dispatch. Hold on.
There was a pause as Rathbun listened to some static and took another sip from his coffee.
Dispatch. That’s an 11-44.
10-4 car 12. 11-44. Back up.
10-4 dispatch. That’s a 187.
10-4 car 12. 187, copy.
Another murder! Rathbun felt his key chain through the fabric of his trousers. This was really turning out to be his lucky night! Quickly, he turned to his keyboard and worked up a bare bones outline giving time for Hanley to get information from dispatch. After a few minutes, he had the phone’s receiver on his shoulder again and Hanley’s voice, a bit more annoyed this time, was in his ear.
"Got another one, Hanley?" Rathbun asked.
"Don’t start, Rathbun," warned the lieutenant.
"Then give me the rundown."
Hanley dictated the information almost exactly the same way he did it the first time.
"The victim was David Pruhouse, curator at the Peabody Institute. Caucasian, male, age between 45 and 55, place of residence Swampscott…"
"Wait a minute," interrupted Rathbun getting a better grip on the receiver. "Did you say he was an employee of the Peabody?"
"It says here. Officers were called to the Institute at 9:45 p.m. when the body was discovered on the floor in the Native American collection by the night watchman. His head was crushed."
"Now wait a minute," said Rathbun. "His head crushed? The same way as that farmer at the hotel?"
"Can’t say at the moment."
Rathbun let that pass. He already knew the answer.
"Can I have the cell of the detective working on the Fredette case?"
"You know I can’t give you that, Rathbun. Now is there anything else you need?"
"Have you got anything else?"
"Then I guess that’s it for now."
As soon as he’d hung up with Hanley, Rathbun rang up another number he knew. It was a good one.
"Detective Thibeau."
"Jean. Rathbun. Got anything on that Fredette case for me?"
The voice on the cell phone sounded resigned. "I knew you’d be calling me; especially after what’s happened at the Peabody. What do you want? I only have a couple minutes while I walk from the hotel to the Institute."
"Any connection between Fredette and Pruhouse?" asked Rathbun not wasting any time.
"Don’t know yet."
"Who put Fredette up at the hotel?"
"The Institute."
"Don’t be cute."
"Now we’re getting somewhere! Did Pruhouse get it the same way as Fredette?"
"Both of them had crushed skulls."
"The officer reporting from the Fredette scene suggested a hatchet."
"Okay. Let’s backtrack. Why did the Institute put Fredette up at the hotel?"
"Don’t know yet. Look. I’m outta time. Gotta go."
Suddenly, all Rathbun had in his ear was a dial tone.
Putting the receiver down, he went back to his keyboard and began typing up the new information. He’d put the two stories together in one article but kept some daylight between them since the police weren’t officially connecting them yet. But that didn’t stop Rathbun from speculating himself. They were definitely connected…a farmer is given a room at the Hawthorne Hotel by a curator at the Peabody Institute and then the two are found brutally murdered barely an hour apart? No way something like that wasn’t connected!
Quickly, before the hour grew any later, Rathbun plucked a paper from his wallet and unfolded it. He scanned the list of numbers there until picking out one. He entered the number in his desk phone and waited for a response.
"Prof. Thornquist? This is Jonah Rathbun of the Evening News." Thornquist was on the board of the Peabody Institute and Rathbun had developed a friendly rapport with him over the years writing features that reflected well on the museum. As a result, whenever Rathbun had needed the answer to some question relating to the museum or anthropology in general, Thornquist had been happy to help.
"Hello, Jonah. I assume you’re calling about the unfortunate death of Pinckney this evening?" Thornquist was a good guy and Rathbun never made the mistake of being fooled by his age into thinking he was slow on the uptake. But this time, it was himself that was caught by surprise.
"Pinckney? Who’s he?"
"One of our maintenance men at the Institute," said Thornquist. "Very unfortunate incident especially coming on the heels of Mr. Pruhouse."
"Wait a minute," pleaded Rathbun, confused. "Are you saying something’s happened to this Pinckney fella?"
"It was definitely murder," said Thornquist in a deadpan manner that chilled Rathbun despite his experience in covering the police beat.
"You mean there were two murders at the Institute tonight…?"
Just then, he was interrupted by the police radio.
Dispatch. Car 16. We have a 187 at 363 Essex Street.
10-4 car 16. Car 12 has asked for an 11-44.
Dispatch. 10-4 on the 11-44. This is another 187 at the same address.
There was a pause before dispatch replied.
10-4 car 16. Can you repeat?
Dispatch. There has been a second 187 at 363 Essex Street. That’s two.
Send another 11-41.
10-4 car 16. Another 11-41.
Listening to the back and forth, Rathbun could tell the speakers were rattled. And no wonder! No sooner had the first car arrived at the Institute to look into a murder than a second is discovered in the same building! What was going on here? Events were moving too fast for him to keep up with. Then he remembered he had Thornquist on the line.
"…was told of the second murder," Thornquist was saying. "In fact, I’m in the car on the way to the Institute now. I was called about the Pruhouse murder and I’d no sooner taken the ramp onto 128 than I received a second call about Pinckney."
"Professor," said Rathbun, hoping to get Thornquist to start from the beginning. "Can you tell me why Fredette was put up at the Hawthorne Hotel by the Institute?"
"He was in possession of local artifacts of Native American origin," said Thornquist, not without a note of hesitation in his voice. Rathbun could guess why. Political Correctness had been running rampant in archeological circles for decades now with emphasis on Indian artifacts that more often than not, came from gravesites. These days, the movement of such artifacts was more likely to be from museum back into the hands of so-called Indians with a few drops of native blood in their veins than the other way around.
"Some months ago, Fredette came to the Institute with an artifact he found on his property in Dean’s Corners near the Dunwich town line," Thornquist continued. "He said he’d been plowing up his field preparing for spring planting when it turned up in the soil. Thinking it might be of value, he brought it to us and we confirmed the figure was of Mindoac origin. The Mindoac band was a branch of the larger Pennacook tribe that lived in the northeast part of the state in pre-historic times. The Institute in the person of Pruhouse expressed its interest in the artifact and paid Fredette a fair sum for it. The payment must have encouraged Fredette to go back and look for more because about a week ago, he contacted the Institute again to say he had more objects to sell. Again, the Institute was interested and volunteered to pay for Fredette’s overnight stay at the Hawthorne Hotel. The transaction, if it were consummated, would have taken longer this time due to the fact that the Institute insisted on making sure not only that the artifacts were genuine, but that they had not been stolen from identified Indian burial grounds."
"Was the first artifact the Institute bought found in an old Indian cemetery?"
Thornquist hesitated slightly before replying. "The Institute could not say for certain but it was not beyond the realm of possibility."
"If you were to say off the record, could you be more specific?"
"Off the record, I believe there was a good chance that it did. You see, it was the sort of totem the Mindoac would bury with their dead to ward off evil spirits bent on devouring the souls of the departed, preventing them from reaching what is euphemistically referred to as ‘the happy hunting grounds.’"
Sensing Thornquist’s discomfort discussing museum purchases of Native American artifacts, Rathbun decided to change tack.
"So, do you have any idea why Pruhouse or Pinckney were killed?"
"None. I’m sorry, Jonah, but I’m just now pulling into the city. I’m going to have to let you go for now."
"That’s okay, professor. Thanks for your help."
Rathbun hung up and began including the new details into his story…sans Thornquist’s belief that the artifacts had been found in an old Indian burying ground. It didn’t take a genius, let alone print reporter, to see the obvious connection among the three slayings: all were connected with the Peabody Institute but whether all had something to do with the artifacts found by the farmer was another matter…although Rathbun was inclined to go with that connection too. Which suggested the question…
Dispatch. Car 12. 10-97 on Harbor Street. Looks like a 459.
10-4 car 12. A 459. Back up?
Dispatch. Not at this time. Stand by.
…was there some kind of nut loose killing people on account of the artifact? If so, he could see how Fredette and Pruhouse fit in but it didn’t account for Pinckney. What did a janitor have to do with any artifacts beyond the fact that he washed the floors in the exhibit room?
Dispatch. Car 12. We have a 187 at 212 Harbor Street. That’s an 11-44.
10-4 car 12. 11-44, 212 Harbor Street.
Another homicide? Rathbun did a quick city search and found that 212 Harbor Street was a pawn shop. Surprised to find himself relieved that it appeared to have no connection with the previous three murders, Rathbun was about to pick up the phone when it rang on its own.
"Evening News, night desk," he said automatically.
"Jonah. Hanley. You want the latest on 212 Harbor Street?"
"You bet! Shoot!"
"Location: the Fair and Easy pawnshop. Time approximate: 11:46 p.m. Victim: Caucasian male between the ages of 55 and 65. Officers on the scene recognized him as Victor Shrewski, owner of the pawnshop. Died of massive trauma to the head."
Rathbun stopped typing.
"Not another hatchet murder?"
"You said it, I didn’t." Rathbun didn’t need to hear the tone in Hanley’s voice to know his guess had been right.
"Anything stolen?" he asked.
"Not that the officers on the scene can tell."
"I’m just wondering if there could be any connection between this one and the other three homicides reported tonight."
"No comment."
"Thanks," said Rathbun and hung up. Immediately, he picked up the receiver again and punched in Thibeau’s number. He got lucky.
"Any definite connection between all the homicides tonight, detective?" asked Rathbun without preamble.
"You know it’s too early for me to comment on that, Rathbun."
"Off the record then."
"Off the record: no doubt about it in my mind for the first three at least. This fourth one is still up in the air. I haven’t even got to the crime scene yet."
"I’m looking for any connection with the Institute and the sale of Indian artifacts," said Rathbun.
"Indian artifacts, huh? You know something we don’t?"
Rathbun hesitated a moment then took the plunge. "I got it from a reliable source that Fredette was selling Indian artifacts he found on his farm to the Institute and that Pruhouse was the man who bought them."
"And now you’re thinking this pawnbroker might have been involved too?"
"Well, he was killed in exactly the same way as all of the others."
"Okay. I’ll let you know if I find anything at Harbor Street that fits the scenario."
"Thanks, detective!"
Rathbun decided it was about time he had another cup of coffee. On the way to the lunch room, he noted that all the correspondents had cleared out and by the time he made the return trip, even Keneely was packing up for the night.
"See you whenever, Jonah," said Keneely heading for the elevator.
Rathbun waved so long heading back to his desk.
By the time he got there, he had an idea.
Sitting down, he Googled Pennacook and then clicked Mindoac. Leaning forward, he scanned the information presented to him. It wasn’t much.
Apparently, the Mindoacs were a sub-group of the Weshacum band which was in turn a branch of the larger Nashaway tribe that lived along the Nashua River in nearby New Hampshire. They didn’t differ much from their relatives in that they divided their time between hunting and planting and until the coming of Europeans, contented themselves in warring with neighboring tribes. Also like other Indians, they had an extraordinary fear not of death but of the dead themselves. They had no conception of the afterlife, a heaven or hell, the way Christians did, only some vague idea that the spirits of the dead wandered aimlessly in some netherworld until they could prove to the demons that dwelt there that they were really dead. If they were able to do that, they might then reunite and move on to something equivalent to an eternal hunt (no mention what the spirits of women and children did if they managed to prove they were dead). One peculiarity of the Mindoacs however, was that they feared the spirits of the dead could be snatched and devoured by hovering demons before they could prove they were really dead. To prevent that, families would employ a sachem or medicine man to fashion a totem which would be buried with the deceased and protect them from being ravished by the demons. But woe to anyone who removed the totem because it was believed that the spirit of the dead person would be yanked from the happy hunting grounds to do some hunting back on Earth, namely going after the thieves who’d taken their totem. The preferred manner of retribution was a hatchet to the head thus preventing the guilty party’s own spirit from ever having the opportunity to reach the happy hunting grounds. The totem would then be returned to the gravesite and the deceased able to continue its career in the netherworld.
It all sounded unlikely to Rathbun but the Mindoacs took it seriously. Was it possible that somebody out there prowling the streets of 21st century Salem, Massachusetts did too?
Car 2. Dispatch. 10-54 at 700 Lafayette Street.
Could it be another homicide? This time Rathbun’s mind took more than a few seconds to drag itself back from the Mindoac netherworld.
10-4 dispatch. Car 2 out.
Rathbun sat frozen, imagining the police cruiser, siren’s wailing, as it charged through the late night Salem streets to Lafayette, the main thoroughfare leading out to the Salem State College campus. It was still early enough in the evening for the clubs and restaurants to be serving their last customers. Tourists would still be wandering the sidewalks wondering if they should go in to have their fortunes told by the myriad palm readers and crystal ball gazers that waited to prey on the credulous. Lights might still be burning in two room lofts as students crammed for finals or in apartments where blue collar workers caught the 11 o’clock news before bedtime. Then the message that Rathbun had been waiting for came in. He hadn’t realized that he’d been holding his breath.
Dispatch. Car 2. We have another 187 at 700 Lafayette Street. That’s an 11-44.
10-4 car 2. 11-44 at 700 Lafayette Street.
Rathbun gulped the rest of his coffee all at once in an attempt to calm his nerves. Next, he reached in his pocket and took out his keys the better to stroke his lucky piece. None of it helped because when the phone rang again, he jumped a good foot off the padded seat of his swivel chair.
Taking the receiver, he jammed it between his chin and shoulder.
"Evening News. Night desk."
"Got another one for you, Jonah," said Hanley in a tired voice. "And I sure hope it’s the last one."
"Me too," mumbled Rathbun unsettled by the series of murders. He lived in the city after all and an unknown killer on the streets was a direct threat to him, just as it was to any other resident of Salem.
"This one was found at approximately 12:59 a.m. on the sidewalk in front of 700 Lafayette Street," said Hanley. "The victim was a Caucasian male aged 36 dead of massive trauma to the head." By this time, he didn’t have to say what was meant by "massive trauma to the head."
"Is there a name attached to the body?" asked Rathbun.
Then came the kicker: "Charles V. Somerhilt. Near as the officers on the scene can…"
But Rathbun had stopped listening. He recognized that name. It was his own cousin!
What the hell was going on here? thought Rathbun.
All at once, any notion that the night’s killings could have been in any way random seemed unlikely if not preposterous. The murders couldn’t be coincidental but if they weren’t, what was the connection? Sure, Fredette had some Indian artifacts that he was going to sell to the Peabody Institution but the chain of connections seemed to stop there. How was Pinckney involved? And the pawn broker? Rathbun shook his head as if to clear it, his hand turning the lucky piece over and over between his fingers. What did his cousin Charlie have to do with it all? Maybe there was no connection between them; maybe they were just the random victims of some crazy killer after all.
Suddenly, the newsroom seemed awfully empty to him as his eyes roamed the silent desks and for the first time he noticed just how many shadows there were even in the glow of the overhead lights. Anyone, he imagined, could be hiding in them and not be seen by him. Over there was the open door to the old photo developing room now used for storing old filing cabinets stuffed with yellowed clippings of passed editions of the paper. Inside the room was total darkness. Farther down on the right was the entrance to the lunch room; it was still lit in the cold glow of phosphorescent lights that only seemed to accentuate Rathbun’s sense of sudden isolation. Finally, at the farthest point in the newsroom, was the emergency exit to the stairs next to the elevator doors and on the other side, the entrance leading to distribution and on the floors below, the printing presses and loading dock where tomorrow morning delivery trucks would queue up to receive the early edition. In his mind, Rathbun could see the machinery and rollers in the printing room as they bulked largely in the gloom downstairs waiting for the dawn when the union printer would hit the switch that set endless sheets of newsprint in motion through the presses. But right then, except for the island of light down the center of the newsroom, the rest of the old building was swathed in concealing darkness.
Unnerved, Rathbun shook himself of the oppressive sensation only to realize that he’d been fingering his lucky piece the whole time. Looking at it, he saw its scowling face and bony figure. There was some incised design work on it too but no matter how closely he looked, he could never figure out if the design could actually be called a pattern or not. The piece had been a birthday gift from Charlie. Rathbun smiled to himself. Good old Charlie! He’d waited until the last minute to get him something and then his chronically straightened financial situation had driven him to…
The phone rang just as Rathbun burst into a cold sweat. Something about Charlie…
"Evening News," he managed, struggling to get his mind to switch gears. "Night desk."
"Rathbun?" snarled the voice of Detective Thibeau.
"Yeah," Rathbun mustered.
"Thought you’d like to know. Your tip about an Indian artifact being involved in tonight’s incidents was on the money. We checked through the pawnshop records and found something that was turned in that fit the description of one of the items left with the Peabody Institute by Fredette. It was sold to the pawn shop by one Phillip Pinckney. Ring a bell?"
Sweating, Rathbun nodded. Then, realizing that Thibeau was waiting for some kind of verbal acknowledgment, said "It does. Maintenance man at the Institute."
"Right. I just got off the phone with Thornquist and after pressing a bit he admitted that the artifact had disappeared from the premises. Now he knows what happened to it. But that’s not the most interesting thing…and remember, all this is off the record until I’m prepared to make an official report, which believe me, I don’t think will be long in coming…the most interesting thing is that when going through the pawn broker’s records, we found another reference to the same artifact: it was bought by a Charles Somerhilt! Do you know what that means?"
"There’s a connection between all of the victims…"
"You bet there is! It means all we have to do now is contact anyone who knew Somerhilt and find out if they know anything about what he did with the artifact. If he gave it to someone else. That’s important because as this case is shaping up, it looks as if we got a nut on our hands whose offing anyone that had anything to do with it."
Rathbun was about to help the detective go a long way toward winding up his case when there was a creak in a loose piece of linoleum behind him. The lucky piece was still in his hand when the stone hatchet buried itself in his skull.