Detective Bill Hardy dropped his cigarette into the soda can on his desk. It hissed and he sighed. Another one dead. Third strangulation in two weeks, enough for the media to credit it to a serial killer. And why not? These things had to happen somewhere.
“Why not?” said Bill’s lifelong friend Ray Roberts into the telephone. “Because this is a damn small town full of good people. Hell Bill, if it ain’t work or church, they’re out on the river or watching football.”
“Or getting strangled,” Bill said indifferently as the clock neared midnight.
“How is Barbara?” Ray said.
“At this hour? Asleep probably. I felt like a real prick, had to cancel dinner on her tonight, but she—”
“—sounded okay with it? They always sound okay until they ain’t. Take it from me, go home while you still got a wife. If just one psycho is really doing all this, he won’t last long.”
Bill shouldered his cellphone and pinched a mound of files between his armpit. “Oh yeah, and why is that?” He closed his office door, waved goodbye to the secretary Jodi, and walked out of the police station.
Ray was eating something, nachos most likely. He chewed and swallowed before answering. “Sold clean out of .9mm ammo today and down to my last boxes of .45 caliber. Plus the 12 gauge shells are flying off the shelf. If you don’t catch this guy, the town militia will.”
“Just what this town needs,” Bill said, well past tired, “more bloodlust.”
Ray snorted and began a defense of the Second Amendment. Bill tried hard not to ignore him as he squinted down the dark street. By day, the historic area of Main Street, Placerville was a hotspot for tourists, a quaint avenue of cafes and antique shops that mostly closed up by 5pm. Because the streets emptied soon after, city council never saw a reason for streetlights.
“Hey Roy, I appreciate the marriage advice. At least I got you to keep me company on late nights if things go sour with Barb and me.”
“The hell you do!”
Bill dug for his flashlight. “Alright pal, it’s dark as death out here and I need my hands.”
“Fair enough,” Roy said, “I got another call anyway.”
“Sure you do,” Bill said as the line went dead.
Bill lit up the sidewalk and rested his hand on the butt of his .44 special as he walked to his truck. Deep winter chill brought the late-night quiet of a graveyard and Bill could feel the Hangman’s eyes on him like a spotlight.
Bill pulled into his driveway and cut the headlights of his Dodge the way he’d done a hundred times before. This time, the living room of his two-story colonial home was on. He felt grateful knowing he had a sympathetic ear waiting. The ramblings of old ex-drinking buddies only helped so much.
Barbara sat on the loveseat with a glass of wine, her legs curled beneath her. She switched off the TV and watched her fingernails as he walked in. Even at forty-eight she was every bit as stunning as the day he invited her to a rodeo their first week of college at UC Davis.
“Hey, honey. It sure is good to come home to some lights for a change.”
“Well, try getting home early for a change and it might be different,” she said with a smile. Even after so many years, she believed in the work he did. He couldn’t love her more for it.
“Another one dead,” he said. “Killed with an old rope, again.”
“Lord help us. How are you holding up?”
He kissed her cheek and sat down, his bones aching. “I miss you. My life revolves around the actions of criminals.” He took her hand and squeezed. “Maybe it’s quitting time Barb, just as soon—”
“—soon as this case is over?” Barbara said. “If I had a dollar every time I heard that one, I could retire.” Her smile was not as triumphant as usual.
“So what’s the bad news?” he said.
“Cancer is back.”
“Jesus,” he muttered.
“So I’m getting out of your hair—no, sit back down—to my sister’s place. She insisted.”
“Florida,” he croaked. “Until when?”
She sipped her wine and smile wryly. “Just until your case is over.”
Bill made a tortured gurgling sound and slumped into the couch. “Guess I deserve that. At least the sun out there will do you good. It’s only getting colder here.”
Next day, Bill fought the liquor demon as public hysteria mounted. After kissing Barbara goodbye at the airport terminal, he could taste the wine on her lips for hours. With the stress, the media calls, and the fear in his community, his willpower slipped inches at a time. Then he saw the newspaper headline and cracked.
“Kettle One double and a glass of water,” Bill told the bartender. He unfolded this morning’s Mountain Democrat and reread the headline:
HANGTOWN STRANGLER STRIKES AGAIN!
Are Local Police Choking?
He scanned the article. No leads, no witnesses, no nothing. The first item bothered him most. He had plenty of leads: alcoholic husbands, greedy business partners, a mailman with a history of assault. He had leads all right, all leading to nowhere. To say otherwise was just bad reporting. It stunk of the new police station intern Jonathan Reeds.
Bill left the Hangman’s Saloon feeling better than he had in a while. Main Street was nearly empty. Leave it to late-afternoon cold and three murders to keep the visitors away.
Rope flexed above him. He looked up at the scuffed soles of the swaying figure. It hung from the third story roof by a noose around its neck. The local curiosity, a sun-tanned mannequin dressed in the gruff fashion of an 1850s gold miner. The area was famous for kicking off the California gold rush, and the Hangman was a tribute to the unruly times.
“Afternoon Hangman,” Bill muttered. “If we don’t find this guy soon I might be up there keeping you company.”
He blew hot breath into his cupped hands and walked up the street to the police station. He felt light on his feet and thankful for the emotional distance that comes with a few drinks. Inside the station, he found Jonathan Reeds leaning over the front desk, chatting up the secretary and sipping coffee like he owned the place. Bill couldn’t resist nudging him with a shoulder as he passed.
Jonathan turned around with fire in his eyes. Bill gave him a bored glance and said, “Hey Jodi, when you find the idiot who leaked to the Democrat, let him know I’d like a words.”
“Will do Bill,” she said with a smile.
Bill closed his office door and muttered, “Bastard son of a judge,” before fishing out an ancient bottle of Red Stag whiskey from his desk drawer. He knew the intern kid was trouble from day one; giving a journalism college student free reign inside a police station. No good could come of it.
He took a pull from the bottle an instant before Jonathan walked into his office. Bill stashed the whiskey below his desk and glared at the boy.
“We knock around here,” Bill said.
“How quaint. Looks like we’ve got a serial killer huh?”
“Call the press,” Bill said dryly.
Jonathan looked at a photograph of Bill as a young man and police academy graduate. It was in black and white. “SWAT is out doing sweeps and backup units are showing up from three counties. And you know everybody’s sure to keep their guns close and cocked.”
“Do you have a point in there somewhere,” Bill said.
Jonathan smiled. “Everyone knows you like to keep late hours here working and all,” his eyes flicked to Bill’s desk, “so I’d be careful walking around after midnight. In scary times people shoot at shadows.”
“Get your skinny ass out of my office. Go do some homework.”
Jonathan winked and gently closed the door. Bill shook his head, grinding his teeth as the room took a bit longer than usual to come into focus; nowadays he had the whiskey tolerance of a middle schooler. It felt like a good time for a quick nap. He rested his head on his forearms, confident that Jodi would wake him if anything important happened.
Bill woke suddenly. The clock read five past midnight and his neck screamed with cramp. His tidy office was dark and quiet, so why had he come to with such violence? He dug his knuckle into his neck and turned for a look outside. Pale moonlight illuminated the alley outside his window. He caught sight of a dark figure stiffly lumbering down the alleyway. It vanished around a corner as a scream ripped the silence.
Distant sirens wailed and as Bill approached a dimly lit Mexican restaurant. A man wept beside a silver Range Rover, sputtering over the bodies of two teenage girls. Not ten feet away, a security guard lay on the asphalt beside a .357 magnum revolver.
Bill was the first on the scene. He loaded the distraught man, the father, into an ambulance and then searched for a witness, any witness. There was none. The busboy had found the girls following a sharp bang outside, a car backfiring or a gunshot maybe.
Bill finished grilling the kid and stood thinking when a hand came down on his shoulder. He found Jonathan, flushed and wide-eyed.
“God…” It was all the boy could say for a moment, then, “Did anyone see anything?”
“Not a damn thing Johnny. A family reunion ran late inside the restaurant. The girls, sisters, went out to dad’s car for a cell phone charger and must have bumped into our psycho. Thirteen and fifteen, just kids, ran down their phone batteries texting and what not, and walk into this hell. And then there’s him.” Bill motioned to the dead security guard.
Jonathan was silent for a moment. “The news mentioned a gold rush exhibit starting at the museum,” he nodded toward the ivy-covered brick building across the street. “Probably hired him to keep watch.”
Bill nodded. “Good thinking.”
“I have my moments,” Jonathan said.
By now, police cars lined both sides of the street. The flashing red and blue lights gave the parking lot an unreal feel as Bill waited for the patrol officers to finish with the halogen lights.
With the crime scene flooded in hyper-white, Bill pulled on a chalky pair of latex gloves and looked sideways at Jonathan. The boy did a poor job of hiding his envy as he snuck glances at the bodies.
“So I’ll go deal with bystanders and the press while you get to it then.”
Bill felt like yelling bullshit! He met Jonathan’s eyes and gave him an empty smile. “If you’d rather play bouncer or newsman then go for it, but if you’re after a gold shield, then I’d stick around and see if you can help solve this mess.”
The two men walked shoulder to shoulder to the dead girls. They lay three feet apart, all faded jeans and furry UGG boots. The older sister wore a pink Union Mine High School sweatshirt.
Bill let Jonathan absorb the sight and then asked, “What do you see?”
“I—I don’t know. They don’t seem to have struggled much, and the light inside the parent’s SUV is still on.”
“Squat down Johnny, get close. Every body tells a story, you need to learn to read it.”
Jonathan was awkward at first, respectful even, as he knelt down and blew the hair from the younger girl’s neck. He did the same to the second girl and then rechecked the first. He stood and exhaled.
“Well?” Bill said to Jonathan, disappointed that the boy had not vomited.
“The marks on their necks are different from the other strangulations, thinner. But look, one is deeper than the other.”
Bill squatted down. Yes, the wounds from the crime scene photos showed an angry, inch-wide stripe around each victim’s neck, a course rope forensics had said. In this case, both girls had a thin, almost elegant line crossing over their windpipe, though the older girl’s ligature mark was a more inflamed shade of purple.
Bill stood. “Check the cigarette lighter.”
Jonathan leaned into the car and checked the dashboard. He came out with a confused look on his face that suddenly grew into a wide smile. “It’s empty. You think the killer used the cell phone charger?”
“I do,” Bill said. “And I think the older sister has more pronounced markings because she offered to go first. She hoped her sister would escape or be let go.”
Jonathan looked thoughtful. “So what? He choked her harder because she went first?”
“Because he was full of steam,” Bill said. “Welcome to job training. You up for the security guard?”
Jonathan swallowed and nodded.
“Looks like a different killer,” he said, looking at the man’s neck.
“Same killer different murder,” Bill said, tracing his finger above thin purple lines crisscrossing the man’s neck. Above, below, and over the marks, finger-shaped bruises spoke of violent throttling. “My guess, cord broke. Attacker used his hands. Help me flip him.”
Jonathan squatted beside Bill and easily turned the body face-up. The man was about thirty-five, with thin blond hair and a bloody welt over his left eye. Sure enough, the frayed white phone charger was coiled in a pool of blood on the asphalt.
“What’s the story?” Bill said. He watched as Jonathan scanned the body from head to boot, saying nothing for a full two minutes. He brought his eyes inches from the man’s neck, sniffed the asphalt, and moved to the revolver.
“Can I?” he asked Bill. He waited for a nod before lifting the gun and opening the chamber. Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead as he dumped the bullets into his palm. Five live rounds and one spent.
Bill stood quietly, smiling to himself and waiting. The boy’s approach was systematic, advanced even. “Well?” he said at last.
Jonathan wiped his forehead and looked at Bill with bright eyes. “The security guard surprised the attacker, but hesitated. God knows why, maybe he was just a good guy. He fired at point-blank range. The barrel has red synthetic fibers melted to it, which means he stuck it right in the attacker’s chest. We are looking for a guy in a red shirt. Probably flannel.”
Bill’s face revealed nothing, though his mind spun like a whirlpool. He knew of no man who could take a magnum round to the torso, finish off a grown man barehanded, and then escape without a single witness or visible blood loss.
Jonathan went on. “The attacker boxed the guy’s ears—look at the blood in his ear canals—and then smashed his head on the curb. He got behind him with the phone cord, but it snapped, so he used his hands.”
“Solid enough, but what says our killer is male. Where’s your proof?”
Jonathan scoffed then noticed Bill was serious. “Well, it takes a lot of strength to throw a guy around like that. And the strangulation was fast. The guard scuffed the sole of his boot once before his throat caved in.”
He looked more grim than triumphant, this pleased Bill. It meant he had the makings of a skilled detective, and sooner than later.
“Okay Bill, the suspense is killing me. How about a grade?”
“You did better than most second-year detectives,” Bill said. “Though I’d save the corpse-sniffing for the privacy of the coroner’s office. It’s just bad form in public Johnny.”
Jonathan gave a solemn nod then got the joke and snorted. “So that’s it then, we are finished here.” It was not a question.
“No,” Bill said. “You are giving answers but not asking questions.”
“What should I be asking?”
Bill smiled. “That’s the best question you’ve asked. For starters, why didn’t our guy use his rope?”
“Like in the past three murders,” Jonathan said.
“Right. Also, why is there an empty noose hanging above the Hangman’s Saloon? Did our 49er go out for a midnight stroll? And he wears a red flannel shirt right?”
Bill left Jonathan gaping. He told the lead patrolmen to sweep outward from the kill point for blood trails or a bullet from the dead security guard’s revolver. It was for form’s sake only; he knew they would find nothing.
Bill spent the night turning and sweating in a beer-hazed nightmare world. He dreamt of the Hangman dangling in the still of night, fingers twitching. He came alive all at once. Moving in a stiff angular way as he kicked and pulled himself onto the window ledge and slipped the noose off his neck. Lifeless white eyes surveyed the town as he coiled the rope around his elbow and palm. Around and around.
Bill woke at 3am. He climbed from bed and went to his second-story bedroom window. A layer of frost coated the vast open field and oak trees beyond. It shone like diamonds in the moonlight. A scene of beauty and desolation for Bill’s eyes only. He slept deeply from that point until sunrise, when the pounding on his front door pulled him from bed.
He stumbled down the stairs and flung open the door, meeting a cold breeze and Jonathan’s idiotic smile.
“Christ, you look like a kid on Christmas. What is it?” Bill growled in his husky morning voice.
“The Hangman is back under his rope. C’mon, we need to check it for clues. I got you this so you’d move faster.” He handed Bill a tall cup of gas station coffee.
Bill took a sip. Black, the way he liked it. Maybe interns did serve a purpose.
Sure enough, above the Hangman’s Saloon hung the Hangman, looking no better or worse for wear. Under the sharp morning light, the figure looked as unreal as any department store mannequin. Bill had to admit, it made an unlikely serial murderer.
Bill replied to a few muttered hellos from diehard barmen as he and Jonathan walked through the saloon and up two floors of stairs.
“Explain this,” Jonathan said, leaning out the third story window to smooth the Hangman’s red flannel shirt. His fingertips traced a quarter-sized hole above the left breast pocket.
Bill reached out and ran his finger around the hole. He felt hard crust where a gun muzzle had melted the fabric. Inside was dense undamaged plastic. “I’ll be damned,” he muttered, “a bullet hit this shirt, no question, but the whole shoulder would’ve been blown off if this dummy took the bullet.”
Jonathan unbuttoned the shirt to reveal a pale unblemished torso. “Wow, it even has a farmer’s tan, but not a mark on it. Figure our killer stole the dummy and wore his clothes during the murders?”
“Why Johnny? This isn’t some TV crime show.”
“Yeah, but maybe the killer watches them. Think about it, he could have worn the clothes to scare the victims into freezing up. Or maybe it’s his villain angle, like the Joker or something. I’d be scared shitless if some old gold miner wanted to strangle me.”
“Well Jesus, he’d better stop killing the witnesses if he wants his costume to get attention,” Bill said.
Jonathan shrugged and pulled a Zippo from his pocket. “Theory number two.” He flipped the lid open and held the thick yellow flame beneath the Hangman’s chin.
“What the…” Bill said, as the Plexiglas shell took light and started dripping blue flame to the street below. “Nope, not indestructible. No way this guy took a bullet last night.”
Bill finished the sixth beer of a six-pack and tried Barbara on the phone. Busy. He dug into the paper bag for another beer and found empty plastic rings. He wished for a seven-pack and considered taking a nap, but picked up the phone and dialed Jonathan instead.
“Hey bud, detective Hardy. You joining us in the stakeout tonight?”
“Hell yes. I wouldn’t miss it. Why, are you tucking in early tonight?”
Bill chuckled. “Quite the opposite. I’m headed to my pal’s shop for some extra firepower.”
“I’ll be there in eight minutes.”
“Don’t speed Johnny,” Bill said.
Jonathan burst out laughing and hung up.
“Welcome to Buck Stop, Ray Roberts at your service.”
“Hell of a place you got here,” Jonathan said, taking in the large fire-bearded man standing behind a glass counter full of handguns.
“Thanks a lot buddy!” Roy said, clenching Jonathan’s hand. “I got over five-hundred firearms to meet your needs. And if you don’t see it, it’s because it ain’t legal, but don’t mean we don’t have it.” He winked at Bill.
“Read my mind as usual Ray,” Bill said.
“Staking out the Hangman Strangler?” Ray said.
“Right again,” Bill said. “And the sonofabitch is a ghost. Got anything for ghosts?”
Roy’s red face lit up. “Got to see a ghost before you can kill it. You need light for that. Still carrying that ugly old bulldog pistol?”
“Until it gives out on me.”
Roy rubbed his beard thoughtfully. “Good thing bricks don’t breakdown…be right back.” He walked in back and returned with three boxes of ammunition. He slid one over the counter. “.44 special tracer ammo. Shoots green balls of flaming metal. Sure to mess up any bad guy’s day, human or otherwise.” He glanced at Jonathan. “Putting the kid on the shotgun?”
“Three’s a charm. You should be playing cards.”
Ray shook his head. “My ex-wife would disagree with you on that one. Anyway, the kid looks like the shotgun type. Walks like a cheetah. Wrestler?”
“Two time all American in high school,” Jonathan said.
Roy slid two more boxes over the counter.
“First box is rifled slugs. You can hit a tennis ball at fifty yards with enough pow left to blow your guy to pieces. The other one is pyro-rounds. Light up your enemies with a hundred feet of white phosphorous fire. Real crowd pleaser.”
“Dragon’s breath,” Jonathan said, reading the box. “Everybody loves a flamethrower,” Ray said. He looked to Bill, “Mind if I join you, fellas?”
“Sorry Ray, law enforcement only. And the kid since he’s halfway to a gold shield already.”
Rays face fell. “Well should you need some backup give me a call. I’ll be at home in my rocking chair with the old T-Rex.”
“Your dog?” Jonathan asked.
“My AA-15 automatic shotgun.”
“And you wonder why the ladies are not knocking down your door,” Bill said.
Heavy grey clouds dulled the afternoon as Bill took the back roads home. He passed dry rolling hills and pastures dotted with cows and horses.
Jonathan laughed. “Those llamas have frozen breath around their heads.”
“It’s supposed to snow down to our elevation. Be sure to dress warm tonight and make sure you show up before the checkpoints close the roads. Nine o’clock.”
“Will do. Can I take the shotgun?”
“As a loan, but this isn’t the library. If you’re late returning it I’ll arrest you.”
Jonathan laughed and turned up the radio.
Bill had a brandy to steady his nerves. He found his nerves only needed steadying when he was drinking. He emptied the bullets from his revolver and made a mental note to load it with Ray’s tracers once he got out to his truck.
Heavy rain clouds snuffed out the moon as he walked into the backyard to rummage through his old boat. His hands found the icy metal box soon enough. He flipped down the clasps and removed a little plastic flair gun and two stubby shells. He placed everything in his jacket pocket and headed for downtown.
Two flashing patrol cars blocked the road into town. Two officers were busy checking a line of waiting cars as Bill rolled past. An officer glanced at his badge and waved him through. Bill couldn’t help wondering what the men hoped to achieve by looking for a killer with no description, but he understood the dangers of feeling helpless as violent crime terrified your town.
He heard the choppy helicopter engine the same moment a bright white spotlight passed over his car. Bill parked at the far end of Main Street and greeted three officers trotting down the road on horseback. He clipped his gold badge on his jacket and made for a brightly lit café, the only thing still open at this hour.
Chatting patrolmen filled the place like church on Easter. Every chair, bar and wall space was occupied. And with good reason. The room was hot to the point of sweltering and the coffee was free.
“Just doing our part to help catch the psycho,” said the bouncy server girl as a table of veteran officers made room for Bill.
Bill clapped Fat Simmons on the shoulder as he sat down. He ordered an espresso and checked his cell phone.
“Expecting someone?” Simmons said from behind a mound of biscotti wrappers.
“We got this new intern at the branch. Ex-wrestler, sharp as a razor. Has the makings of a damn good detective if he sticks with law enforcement. I invited him to see what we do.”
Beside Simmons sat a tank of a woman with thick brunette hair and scowling pink cheeks. She gave Bill a disgusted look. “You’re letting an intern take part in a manhunt? You got a crush on him or something?”
Bill glanced at her powerful breasts smashed beneath her bulletproof vest and decided to go easy on her. “He gets to stand outside the museum with a shotgun. Maybe drink a cappuccino and hear some puffed up war stories from Simmons here.”
She looked unhappy at this. Maybe her vest just needed loosening.
“The way it should be,” Simmons said. He had a swallow of his mocha and continued. “Good cops don’t come from reading textbooks.”
“Agreed,” Bill said. “And this kid has potential. He read the triple-homicide last night like a textbook. Straight out of a Sherlock Holmes story.”
“The big city will swallow him soon enough,” the policewomen said. “No need for a brain like that out here.”
“Except when Jack the Ripper comes to visit,” Simmons said with a whipped-cream grin.
“Speaking of,” the policewoman said, handing Bill a rugged little walkie-talkie from a half full cardboard box. “The department is using a secure frequency tonight.”
“Only gals and guys with a badge,” Simmons said.
“Thanks a lot,” Bill said. “Keeping it off the public scanners then?”
“That’s the goal,” the policewoman said. “We prefer trained professionals on this only, for safety’s sake.”
“Linda here is a trained marksman in all service weapons. Black belt in karate too,” Simmons said.
Bill stood up and dropped a $10 on the table. “That doesn’t surprise me a bit. All right officers, stay safe. I need some fresh air.”
Snow fell as Bill’s shoes crunched over the icy sidewalk. His watch read a quarter past eleven. He walked to the side of the old historical museum and sat down on a member-donated bench. The slanting roof caught the thickening snowfall and gave him a clear view of the Hangman across the street.
Car engines revved to life all at once. Tires screeched and the falling snowflakes turned red and blue as patrol cars skidded over the frozen road. Police on horseback cantered by a moment later.
Bill shrugged and rubbed his gloved hands together. He thought about flipping on the walkie-talkie, but only for curiosity’s sake. He was not moving until midnight unless the Hangman moved first.
He heard the crunching snow before he saw the shadow. It crossed the street at a jogging pace. The snowfall was close to a whiteout; he couldn’t even be sure the Hangman was still at the end of his rope. He reached into his jacket and remembered the bullets to his revolver were on the floorboard of his truck.
“Easy Clint Eastwood, it’s just the intern.”
Jonathan sat down on the bench, gripping the shotgun between his knees. “What?” he said with a smirk. “Thought the killer wanted a piece of old Bill Hardy?” He wore jeans and a tight thermal shirt tucked into fitted leather gloves. He smelled like sweat and cologne.
“Idiot kid, good to see you’re dressed for the cold.”
Jonathan shrugged and jammed a wad of chewing tobacco in his cheek. “I planned for activity tonight. Looks like you have a different idea.”
“I’m sticking around here for a bit longer. It’s almost midnight, then I’m going for more coffee.”
Jonathan rubbed his chest absently and tried to squint across the street. “Been out here long?”
“Not too long. I’m surprised the roadblock let you in this late. Supposed to close off all entry and exit at eleven.”
“You think they’d stick around after another strangulation?”
“Huh?” Bill said.
Jonathan chuckled and shook his head. “Up at the hospital. They found her like fifteen minutes ago. A nurse finished off in the parking lot. Young girl and pretty. Not as peaceful looking as the sisters last night, though.”
Bill was suddenly very alert. “You were there?”
“Right after the first responders. I offered to help, but they told me to fuck off.”
While it had taken Bill years of hard work to hone his detection skills, instincts had come with the job. They had saved him more than once, told him three years ago that he was exactly one drink away from a divorce, and warned him now that something was very wrong.
“Did you follow the sirens?” Bill asked in a casual tone. He rubbed his hands together before slipping them into his jacket pockets.
“I heard about it the same way everybody else does. Police scanner. You think I don’t own one?”
It was a lie of course, but it only proved that Jonathan had sweet-talked some department secretary for one of the officer-only walkie-talkies.
Bill fumbled inside his jacket pocket, trying to load a round into the flare gun. “Hey, Johnny, I meant to ask you, how’d you know about the murders last night? The call went out on a private scanner.”
It was bullshit. Anyone with a police scanner would have heard the news. But Jonathan’s silence was enough to brand him as a prime suspect. Bill reached for his handcuffs when Jonathan’s shotgun smashed into his jaw.
Everything went black as Bill collapsed. Jonathan stepped over him and raised the shotgun over his head like an ax. Bill pulled the flare gun from his jacket and fired before the shotgun could fracture his face. A hissing ball of fire burned through the crotch of Jonathan’s jeans and bounced blazing down the street. He shrieked and slapped at the flames eating his pants.
Bill ran for cover before the kid decided to use the other end of the shotgun. As if on cue, the gun exploded.
Bill leapt behind a dumpster as a tube of fire roared by. He felt a sharp punch in his lower back. He reached back and felt a crispy hole in his jacket and burnt flesh beneath it. The pain was brutal but the wound was shallow. He’d be spitting up his kidney if Jonathon would’ve hit him with the rifled buckshot.
The shotgun boomed again. This time, a slug punched through the dumpster inches from his head.
Bill slid down to his back and flinched as the dumpster jolted violently. He spun around to find Jonathan crouching on the dumpster lid. Bill looked up into the barrel of the shotgun, wondering if the next round was fire or lead.
Jonathan saw the question in Bill’s eyes and turned the shotgun sideways to peer into the chamber. Bill drove his feet into the dumpster as hard as he could. Jonathan danced and then crashed onto the ground.
Bill kicked the shotgun away and closed the distance. He was on Jonathan raining down fists. Something snapped in his hand. A bone, just some useless bone. He tightened his fist and pounded harder, thinking nothing of it when Jonathan trapped his left foot and arm. Desperate, feeble instinct, no more. An instant later Jonathan spun Bill to his back and mounted him. He slammed an elbow into Bill’s eye. And again.
Bill felt the impact, but no pain. He reached up and took handfuls of Jonathan’s ears and tried his best to rip them off. The boy screamed and rose up. Bill used the last of his strength to plant his feet and arch up. Jonathan’s eyes grew wide as his body lurched headfirst into the dumpster. The thud echoed down the alley as Bill struggled up.
Jonathan bounced to his feet and grinned—an expression Bill would never forget. His mouth dripped blood from the black holes where his front teeth had been a few seconds before. “You fight decent for an old guy, decent but dirty.” The left side of his face was swollen and turning purple. His thermal shirt hung in taters from his body. A bruise engulfed his left pectoral muscle like a mud puddle.
“Looks like the mark a vest makes after a bullet hit it,” Bill said. “Big round too. A .357 magnum maybe?” Bill said.
“So you killed seven people, congratulations monster.”
“About to be eight,” Jonathan said.
“And what? You strangle people with old rope and wear the Hangman’s shirt as a villain angle?”
Jonathan looked proud now. “The rope was in my trunk the night I decided to start killing. The Hangman stuff was later, total inspiration really. I wanted to see if I could make the town’s best detective think he had a rampaging mannequin on the loose. And I’ll be dammed if it didn’t work.”
“You’ll be put to death for this,” Bill said.
“Not before you do,” Jonathan said, circling Bill, waiting for the right time to strike. He dropped to his knee and shot, taking Bill under his armpit and groin and slamming him to the ground.
Painful cracking. The impact left Bill gasping, but only until Jonathan clutched his throat. Bill felt the crushing grip ending him at once. His mind grew dark as he tried to break Jonathan’s thumbs.
Jonathan’s grasp weakened and then failed.
Bill fought for breaths. Through the snowfall, he saw the impossible. Jonathan arched back unnaturally, scratching at his neck, desperate to get a finger under the frayed rope digging into his neck. His eyes rolled back and his arms dropped. His face turned the color of rotten blueberries as his body slumped to the ground.
Snow fell heavy. Bill blinked furiously and wiped the ice from his face. His eyes refocused, finding the tan, chipped face of the Hangman inches from his own. White lifeless eyes studied him.
Then there was only snow.
Detective Bill Hardy recovered fully. “A damn lucky thing,” Simmons said later, “that our boys found you before you froze, but I think the snow kept your old meat fresh while the ambulance took its sweet time.” The highway was iced over, Bill applauded their caution. They gave Bill credit for slaying the Hangtown Strangler, and with a rope of all things. The papers called it poetic. Bill didn’t want the credit, but he was not ready to trade his badge for the crazy house, so he kept the truth to himself. Oddly, no one asked questions about a bag of gold dust stolen from the old historical museum on the night everything went down.
Bill never touched a drink again, though he poured Barbara several after the doctors called to say the cancer was gone.
Sometime later, Bill took a walk past the Hangman’s Saloon. Loud music and sounds of rowdy fun reached the sidewalk. Above it, as always, hung the Hangman, skin brown as toast under the spring sun. Bill thought maybe the leather pouch hanging from the miner’s belt looked a bit newer than the rest of him. He also thought it just might be filled with gold dust, but who could say for sure?
Some mysteries are best left hanging.