Authors: Nicholas Wolff
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To Tim Hartigan
Man is wolf to man.
f there’s a time to visit my little corner of Massachusetts
, Dr. Nat Thayer thought as he walked quickly along the darkened path,
January isn’t it.
When friends were thinking of journeying to his small city of Northam, he always told them: Come in May, when you can hear the knock of baseballs on aluminum bats from three blocks away. Or early fall, for the foliage and the hand-pressed apple cider. Half of New York City does. Northam was famous for that crap. Get your cider at Johnson’s stand, not from that fraud Matheson, who laces his stuff with brand-name stuff from Stop & Shop, and head back home with an image of the golden Berkshires to last you awhile.
But get out by the end of November, by all means. That’s when the smart ones shutter their vacation homes and take their L.L.Bean duck boots and their mountain bikes back to Boston and points south, and the population settles back to around four thousand souls. The smart ones
. You don’t come here in winter, especially if you’re prone to black thoughts. Here the hills block whatever sun we get and soak it into the loam along with the dying leaves, the locals turn inward, and the alleyways between the quaintly named bars get splashed with blood. The thin church steeples rake the sky like a handful of knives held blade upward.
No dementia caused by inbreeding up here
, Nat thought as he walked briskly toward city hall.
We’re not Southern Baptists or anything, just good old God-fearing Yankees.
But plenty of doom-ridden
landscape and seasonal depression. And just . . . darkness. Of every kind.
The little valley Nat was coming up from was stripped of all colors except black and stone gray, the hills plunged off to his right into darkness and mist, the color in the trees now sunk back into the ground, replaced by its opposite, the bottomless night of rain-soaked birch trees against a darkening slate blue sky. He could see a half-moon low in the eastern sky as he walked, caught and sliced to bits by a dozen black fingers of branches.
This was another city now from the one you saw in summer.
was the place Margaret Post had left, violently and unwillingly, only two nights earlier.
Three hours later, Nat was sitting in the satellite office of the Northam Mental Health Clinic in the basement of city hall, rubbing his hands together like two dry sticks and cursing the town fathers. Jesus Christ, it was cold. It was like sitting in a puddle at the bottom of a stone quarry. The three-hundred-year-old granite walls conducted cold and wet like steel did for electricity.
10:14 p.m. “What the hell am I doing here?” he whispered as he blew a breath into his hands.
for Buenos Aires. He always got out of Northam every winter, at least for a few weeks. God knew how dark his mood would get without that dose of sunlight and rum cocktails. And no one else in his life was going to spring for a South American vacation. Nat had no family to speak of left in Northam, except for some distant cousins, and they didn’t speak at all. His friends were broke or married, which usually amounted to the same thing. He was the end of the line, old man. And he liked it that way.
A sudden chattering noise nearly snapped him out of his chair. It was his cell phone on the desk, rattling like a skittering
pebble, giving the low growl that meant an incoming text. Nat picked the phone off the imitation mahogany.
Suicide: . . .
the message said.
Nat frowned. It was from John Bailey, his oldest friend, now a detective with the Northam Police Department. John was working a double shift on account of Margaret Post’s murder, the same reason Nat was here at the clinic. All part of an effort to calm the citizens of Northam into believing that her killer was far away, heading to Boston after his stopover in their sleepy little burg. Psychiatric outreach, they called Nat’s night job here. Personally, he believed the town fathers were hoping whoever did it would wander in to his little office and confess.
The phone buzzed in his hand with the rest of the message.
Boned Maggie Voorhees.
Nat’s frown changed into a sly grin. He and John had invented this game in high school. It was called Northam Suicide Note, or Suicide for short. They’d been bored back then. Hell, maybe morbid, too, typical outsiders in jock-ruled Northam High.
The aim of Northam Suicide Note was to re-create the last words of someone driven to kill himself for any particularly local reason. They’d write the note on a piece of paper—
Suicide: Ran over Ma with snow blower, oh God, the blood
Suicide: Maggie Voorhees just smiled at me all sexy-like
—and pass it to each other. Poor old Maggie got mentioned a lot, being the ugliest girl in school.
But it had been years since he and John had played the game. What had made his friend think about it now, on a Friday night in the dead of winter?
Nat typed out
U dated her freshman year. Repent.
Outside he could hear the wind start up with a low shriek, that shrill inhaling sound announcing one day it would rise and
rise and you’d never hear the top of it because the stones would have fallen in on your head.
Something began to ring in another part of the building.
Nat checked the little TV screen by the side of his desk. It showed the locked outside door that led into the clinic. Nothing but freezing rain on its small black-and-white screen, plus a small cone of bright white light and beyond it the darkness of the back side of the hill, descending downward to the Raitliff Woods. Who the hell was going to come out on a night like this?
Nat almost wished someone
show up, ring the bell under the bulb at the end of the wooden walkway that would sound in his office. Company would help pass the time. Still, only forty-five more minutes to go before he was done for the night.
He picked up the phone and read the screen.
Exactly why I should KM.
, part of their old code they’d used in high school to avoid teachers freaking out over their notes. Now John had to watch what he said on department time.
Strange. The messages didn’t sound like good, yeoman-solid John Bailey. He must be out of his mind, parked in an unmarked car in this horrible weather. John had mentioned he’d be staking out the college entrance where Margaret Post’s body had been found, in hopes the killer might return to the scene of the crime. Nat had walked by there himself yesterday on his way to the hospital and felt a chill zigzag up his back. The stakeout must have John reverting back to the old days. Next he’d be making a joke about seeing Margaret Post’s sliced throat . . .
He caught himself.
Too soon, old man.
Nat wouldn’t be able to stop himself joking about it eventually, of course; it was his nature to make light of even the most horrendous events in life. But the girl’s murder was still too fresh. How goddamn awful it must have been. Walking home, alone, the comforting stone wall of the college to her right. Margaret had been twenty yards from the big Wartham College gate, with the words
in stone on an archway twenty feet above the ground. Just inside the gate sat a little security booth with a guard inside 24/7. But she’d never made it.
Judging by the grip marks on Margaret’s left arm, the killer came up from behind, grabbed her, and dragged her into the bushes just short of the gate, then hung her on an ash tree next to the wall. But not before doing something to her so terrible that the newspapers could only hint at “disfiguring wounds.”
Over in the psych wards at Mass Memorial, his day job, Nat wasn’t exactly known for his empathy. Sometimes he wondered if he’d gotten into the wrong profession.
Your curiosity and your need to stay interested
, his mentor, Dr. Francesci, had once written on an evaluation,
overwhelms your recognition that this is a human being in need in front of you.
But he could still feel for Margaret Post. All joking aside, they needed to catch the freak who had killed her.
The phone rattled on the desk. John again.
the message read.
Any takers over there?
Nat scooped up the phone and walked to get some blood flowing to his toes, which were quickly losing feeling. The disembodied messages out of the ether were starting to spook him. He felt like calling John. But Nat typed instead as he walked out into the dark hallway.
Nope. Yankees hate psychs. Rather drink.
Nat paced, walking up one flight into the tall arched hallway of the building. It boomed with a low, full-bodied echo; the place was old, built in 1729. In the gloom of the exit light, Nat passed the black-and-white archival photographs of famous Northamians: mostly sea captains or whalers (they were only forty miles from the ocean) or old codgers in top hats standing over some cornerstone or inaugurating the water mill. There were even a couple of public hangings in the town square depicted somewhere near the front entrance. Ghoulish fun for schoolboys.
It was, if that was physically possible, even colder in the hallway.
The phone buzzed in his hand.
Ur not psych. Ur bait. Be careful.
Nat caught his breath in surprise, then laughed. It could be true. The town was locked up, windswept, seemingly deserted. He’d been the only one out tonight in the ten minutes it took to walk from his condo to city hall.
Well, send him in
, Nat thought.
As long as he has an extra blanket and a bottle of Jack.
He thumbed the phone’s keys.
Suicide: Found out best friend John secretly married to Maggie Voorhees. Shame too much.
It took thirty seconds by Nat’s count for the little balloon to appear with his response.
I’m serious, Nat. Watch urself. Had reports . . .
But nothing appeared under his little text window. Nat frowned.
Reports of what, John?
He stared at the phone, then watched his breath disappear into the gloom. Damn it, what was John saying? He gave the phone a little shake, as if the extra letters were stuck somewhere in the circuitry and would tumble out with a little coaxing.