Bryan Gruley: The Hanging Tree

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Bryan Gruley The Hanging Tree
  • Название:
    The Hanging Tree
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  • Жанр:
    Триллер / на английском языке
  • Язык:
    Английский
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The Hanging Tree: краткое содержание, описание и аннотация

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Her left foot appeared to be shoeless. She could have lost a boot as she kicked away whatever she had stood on. I couldn’t tell if the foot wore a sock. And whatever Gracie had climbed up on must have fallen into the snow. She hadn’t climbed nearly as high as she had all those years ago. Just enough to secure herself to one of the sturdy boughs eight or nine feet off the ground. She wasn’t ninety pounds anymore either.

Stray snowflakes blowing around had dampened the first page in my notebook. I flipped back to a dry page, took off my right glove, grabbed the pencil, started jotting some notes. I had reported on one suicide before, before I’d left Detroit and returned to my hometown, Starvation Lake, back when I was still covering the auto industry for the daily Detroit Times. A laid-off middle manager for Superior Motors, a big auto manufacturer, leapt from the Ambassador Bridge spanning the Detroit River between Detroit and Windsor. Hitting the water didn’t kill him but the current sucked him under, and his body, in dark suit, white shirt, and red print tie, fetched up on Fighting Island downriver. My four paragraphs got buried at the bottom of A14 or 15.

I figured Gracie would get similar treatment in the Pine County Pilot. Newspapers didn’t care much for suicides, unless they involved rock stars. The editors would argue that you could never truly prove anyone had committed suicide without knowing exactly what they were thinking right up to the last milliseconds before they died. Even if there was a note, you couldn’t be positive that the dead one hadn’t felt a desperate urge to call it off, to save himself as he plummeted toward the sidewalk, or whether the carbon monoxide so flummoxed her that her fingers weren’t able to roll the car window down. Maybe it was, in the very end, just an accident.

This was no accident, though. Gracie had many choices that had led her to this final one. I can’t honestly say that, as I stood watching her body rock in the wind, I felt much sympathy for Gracie. But I felt for Darlene.

Brilliant light flashed across my notebook. I stopped writing and looked up. The sizable upper half of Pine County sheriff Dingus Aho loomed over the snowbank in front of me, his flashlight extended.

“This is a crime scene, young man,” he said. “Better get going.”

I shielded my eyes against the glare and took a step closer.

“Dingus,” I said.

He waved the flashlight beam toward my pickup.

“I’ll ask you once to get in your truck and go home,” he said. “If I have anything to say, you’ll hear it later.”

“Sorry, can’t hear you,” I said, moving close enough that I could see the ice striping his handlebar mustache. “That’s Gracie McBride, isn’t it?”

“I have nothing to say at the moment.”

Despite his bulk, it was sometimes hard to take Dingus seriously because he still spoke in the singsong lilt of a Finn who’d migrated down to Starvation from the Upper Peninsula.

“This would be the first suicide in the shoe tree, wouldn’t it?” I said.

“Nice try. Now move along.”

I scribbled something illegible in my notebook, just to let Dingus know I wasn’t giving up. Not that it mattered much. Early on a Monday morning, Channel Eight would have an entire day to cover the story before Tuesday’s Pilot came out. And I doubted we’d run much anyway. A woman who’d been racing toward the gates of hell for most of her life had arrived a bit quicker than we’d all expected. Not much news there, actually.

“Dingus, could you at least confirm-”

“Gus!” he said, turning the beam on his face. “Look at me.”

I stopped writing. The light gleamed on the badge pinned to the front of his earflap cap. He jerked a gloved thumb over his shoulder.

“You don’t really want her to see you here, do you?”

I looked past him and saw Darlene and another deputy moving toward the ambulance. Dingus was right, I really didn’t want Darlene to see me, but I didn’t know how that could be avoided.

“I’m just doing my job,” I said. “She’ll have to understand.”

“She’ll have to, huh? I think you know her better than that.”

“I guess.”

“Look-off the record?”

“Sure. It’s Gracie, right?”

He shrugged. “It’s getting dangerous to drive a Zamboni around here.”

Gracie had driven the ice-resurfacing machine at the hockey rink where my buddies and I played late at night. Starvation’s last suicide, about a year before, had also driven the Zam at the rink.

“You going to do an autopsy?”

“Up to the coroner. But it’s pretty standard procedure.”

“Uh-huh.” I nodded toward the tree. “What happened to her other shoe?”

A vehicle approached. Both of us turned our heads. Twin yellow beams shined between the headlights. Dingus squinted in disapproval as the Channel Eight van rolled closer.

“Damn it all,” he said. He shouted at his deputies. “Let’s move it, people. Get her down and into that ambulance chop-chop. I don’t want her mother seeing this on TV.”

I stepped back to the opposite bank and watched as the deputies and paramedics lowered Gracie from the shoe tree. I expected Darlene to stand aside but she shouldered her way in and took hold of Gracie around the waist.

“Careful,” she shouted. “Be gentle with her.”

The ambulance doors slammed shut as the Channel Eight van’s passenger door swung open. Out jumped a slim woman in a quilted black parka. She shot me a frown before bounding up the snowbank, waving a microphone over her head. “Sheriff! Sheriff Aho!”

I looked past her and saw Darlene at the back of the ambulance. She held one gloved hand flat against the door. She dropped it only after the ambulance pulled away, churning snow in its wake.

I wished I could wrap my arms around her. Later, I thought.

I stuffed my hands in my pockets and started back to my truck. As the ambulance siren faded in the distance, I heard the muffled ringing of my cell phone in my pocket. It could only be one person.

“Darlene,” I said. “I’m really sorry.”

“Did you think I wouldn’t see you?”

She was upset. I decided I’d let her be.

“Sorry. Gotta do my job.”

“You always say that.”

Cold stung my knuckles. I switched the phone to my other hand.

“We don’t do much with suicides anyway,” I said.

“Good.”

“Yeah, no need to embarrass her mom.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

She said it with such force that I stopped and spun around toward the shoe tree. “What do you mean?”

“Gracie did not-oh, goddammit, Dingus. Hold on.”

I waited, watching the police lights flicker in the branches of the shoe tree. Darlene came back on.

“I’ve got to go,” she said. “We’ll talk later. I love you.”

two

Clouds the color of bone hid the morning sun when I stepped onto Main Street just before seven o’clock.

Exhaust snaked up from three pickup trucks and an SUV idling in the angled parking spaces that ran down both sides of Main to where the street veered southwest at the eastern shore of the lake. The trucks had been left running to stay warm while their owners ate breakfast at Audrey’s Diner. I imagined four grizzled old men in plaid flannel shirts buttoned over thermals sopping up egg yolk with white toast and talking about the chance for more snow, about the Detroit Red Wings’ goaltending problems, about that new hockey rink going up in town, and maybe, if they had heard by now, about Gracie McBride.

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