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Pigeons in the Rafters

by Scott Wolstencroft 3 months ago in Short Story
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Pigeons in the Rafters
Photo by Clay LeConey on Unsplash

In April 1951, Jackson Mulrow was hanged in what was once a warehouse on the outskirts of Spokane, and no one knows why. No crime on the books or court record bears his name. The local papers carried no notice of execution. No one beyond eight people in attendance, including the deceased, knew it happened. All everyone else knew was that old Dirk Barge had been killed in his bed by an intruder's gun—a tragedy but not one that lingered very long in the public interest. There were executions for certain crimes and certain criminals from time to time, but it was generally held that law enforcement business was of no concern to those not directly involved. So no one offered much time to note the absence of Dirk Barge, a solitary, people-hating pensioner, nor did they worry about what would happen to the man captured for the crime.

In addition to the executioner, medical examiner, minister, Sheriff Kragg and Deputy Wurst, two others, who did not know Mulrow, were in attendance. They stood side by side in the corner shadows and watched as the condemned was delivered to the scaffold and then witnessed the man's weight, teamed with gravity and hemp, bring about his end. In between, nearly an hour passed.

"This is your first one of these, Dep, but it won't be the last by far." Sheriff Kragg looked at his deputy, a dutiful young man who couldn't yet fill out his uniform. "Any questions?"

"No, Sheriff. Well, maybe one." He motioned to the dark corner. "Who are they?"

"That's my nephew, Dougie. Just out of high school. Thinks he's gonna be on the force one day. He ain't got the sense God gave a goose, but I let him watch. Looks like he brought a friend with him."

The county had taken possession of the old warehouse when its owner fell into bankruptcy, a financial decline so crippling that the man, as his last act as owner, hanged himself within, providing the inspiration for the structure's future use. From then on, there was no reason for anyone to visit the musty, eerie space if it didn't involve death. A hastily fashioned gallows utilized one of the warehouse's beams, to which a rope was attached. The rest was a wobbly platform on ten-foot stilts with a drop door in the center, dotted with old droppings from the pigeons that sometimes perched overhead.

The prisoner Mulrow, who was average-sized, with black hair, balding, and wearing a mustache, trembled so frantically as he was led from the police car it could easily have been mistaken for a full-body tremor disorder. As soon as he saw the noose, he fainted, collapsing at the knees. His bound hands were released and re-tied behind his back before the deputy and medical examiner dragged his limp figure up the fifteen steps and dumped him onto the creaky platform. For a moment, the men stood waiting for him to come around, but once the impatient sheriff gave a shrug and nodded, Mulrow was hoisted upward and held above the drop door, where the noose was fitted and a burlap sack placed over his head. The sheriff asked with a snicker if he had any last words and signaled the men to bow their heads as the minister offered a prayer. At the signal, the door was released, and the unconscious man was dropped.

With that, the deed should have been done, but the taut rope triggered a dull creak from above, and its entire length followed Mulrow down to the warehouse floor.

"Well, shit," the sheriff spat. "Bastard cracked right through that beam. Must be rotted. Goddamndest thing I ever saw."

The huddle on the platform stood gazing up in disbelief until an unexpected sound caused them to slowly turn their heads downward in unison. The open drop door framed a doubled-over Jackson Mulrow below, dry heaving within his hood, the limp noose trailing down his back like a long braid of hair. Five pairs of shoes descended the stairs in an urgent scurry to surround a very alive Jackson Mulrow.

"Mickey, go on and check him out," the sheriff ordered.

The medical examiner knelt at Mulrow's head and removed the hood. All were silent as he employed his stethoscope and considered the prisoner's condition.

"Well Sheriff, his breathing is slowing to a normal pace, but it's fairly labored. Looks like he dislocated his shoulder when he hit the floor. Oh, and, uh, his crotch is wet."

"I might have guessed he would piss hisself. They do that sometimes." Kragg shook his head, and a closed-mouth belch caused his cheeks to puff up, followed by a forced exhale. "Well, gentlemen, we're gonna have to go again."

"I need a minute to reset the shoulder," Mickey said.

"Nah. He won't be needing it."

Deputy Wurst, who usually stood in deference to his superior, asserted himself the best way he knew, speaking slowly in soft, carefully chosen words.

"Sherriff Kragg, hadn't we better consult the law about the proper procedure for this sort of thing?"

"Nonsense son, we are the law. Job's gotta get done." He glanced at the wide-eyed men, none of whom volunteered their thoughts. "You look like you got something to say, Lyle. Out with it."

"An unusual situation, without a doubt," the executioner began. "Personally, I find it unsettling. You know, in the spooky sense." He leaned in and lowered his voice. "I mean if a man survives his execution, maybe that's a sign."

Kragg dismissed the idea as a sneeze burst forth from the shadows, causing the men to again turn in slow unison to its source, one of the two witnesses across the room. Allergies, the man announced before honking into his handkerchief. Kragg adjusted his pants at the waist, the site of an ongoing battle between a mass of belly fat and his belt. He mumbled under his breath and addressed the guests.

"Gents, as you can see, we've had a setback. We'll need a minute." He turned back as another nose blow rang out. "Now, just what spooks you, Lyle?"

"Well now, some might say the good Lord intended this man to keep his life." Lyle removed his wire-rimmed glasses from his gaunt face and examined them for smudges, which he wiped away with his tie. "Now, I'm not one who would say that, but I've never been versed in the Almighty. We could be playing with fire."

"Did you hear that man sneeze?" Deputy Wurst chimed in. "You know, they say the heart stops during a sneeze, but you don't die. It's escaping death. Do you think someone's trying to tell us something?"

"Hogwash," Kragg snapped. "Boy, if your heart stopped every time you sneezed, you'd have never made it out of your first dirty diaper, yet here you are having to deal with him." He pointed downward, and all the heads moved together once more to look upon the condemned, still coughing. "Father, you're the authority in that department. What can you tell us?"

The elderly man of the cloth wasn't a Catholic priest but had long since given up explaining to the sheriff he was using the wrong title. He lit a cigarette, held it between two fingers, and scratched his head with the same hand's remaining digits.

"Well, Sheriff, I don't we can't know what goes on inside the mind of the Lord, but it seems to me if this man was meant to live, he wouldn't have led him here to begin with. String him up."

Encircled by five men debating a second attempt to end his life, Mulrow began weeping gently onto the warehouse floor. Over and over, they continued to question each other, with no concern for their audience. But just as it seemed a decision was made, a new problem revealed itself.

"Sheriff that beam is split, we'll need a new location. This whole scaffold will have to be dismantled and rebuilt somewhere else."

"Yeah, should have seen that coming. This place is older than God's dog. I guess we're all lucky nothing came crashing down on us."

Mulrow listened as the men broke into laughs and sighs of relief at their own survival.

"Well, Lyle, you're the hangman," the sheriff continued. "I need this done tonight. You're gonna have to improvise."

Heavy rain began to fall, pelting the structure's tin roof, filling the cavernous building with a cacophonous roar. It was immediately decided that a tree was out of the question since no one wanted to get wet. Lyle roamed through the space, discovered a beam that appeared trustworthy and appropriate for the prisoner's weight, and began the work of installing the noose, throwing the rope over the beam, again and again, until secure. A withdrawn Mulrow was led to the new spot of his death, and Kragg called for a chair, adding that a shorter drop meant a longer dance, but it would do the trick.

"Have you any final words son?" the minister asked.

Mulrow, still struggling to breathe, his arm dangling out of place, looked Kragg in the eye and searched for some sign of humanity. He had always heard about the sheriff, a backroom dealer who enjoyed his power too much and sometimes kept cases like his out of the courts so he could expedite the sentence he thought just. He had been taken into custody, no rights read, no phone call, no lawyer, and no trial. His swift capture had satisfied a witness who had described a stranger spotted near the crime scene and appeased the townsfolk. Mulrow focused and stared at the sheriff to see what was in the eyes of a man like this, one with the arrogance to be police, judge, and jury, whenever he saw fit. But the sheriff's eyes held no emotion. There was no anger or savagery on his face, nothing akin to unwavering evil. Instead, he saw nothing but irritation, impatience, and inconvenience.

"The man asked for your last living words," Kragg pushed. "Usually it's when you beg for forgiveness."

"I am the only one here," Mulrow said breathlessly, "who does not need forgiveness. Do it already. Maybe you'll get it right this time."

All fell silent; even the rain had stopped. The sheriff nodded, and the minister offered a quick and lazy recitation of the twenty-third psalm before requesting mercy on the soul of Mulrow, who was being prepared and moved into position. In the corner, the allergy-burdened witness struggled to remain quiet but managed to hold his condition until the Amen.

The executioner placed his boot at the chair's seat where Mulrow stood, bound and hooded. After adjusting himself and spitting on the floor, the sheriff nodded, and the prisoner fell. As forewarned, the drop was far less dramatic than the one they would have been treated to had a rotting beam not split, but it was enough to rouse the birds nesting in the eaves, sending them to all corners of the warehouse.

From the noose, a man would dance for his life to the sound of the wood creaking under the rope's weight. The beam did not break, but neither did the neck. Suffocation was given the job. Mulrow couldn't feel himself kick and convulse, though it was indeed happening, like the wriggle of a newly hooked fish. Instead, he had the sensation that he was suspended in thick, black unbreathable air. Around him, an unsettling stillness was a terrifying counterpoint to his desperate search for breath. Unconsciousness took several minutes to arrive, and as he struggled for even a wasp's breath in death's waiting room, he could again hear the men speak.

"Is that it?"

"Nope, not just yet."

"Not uncommon. He didn't fall far."

"Should we do it again?"

"Let's watch and see what he does. Should be out soon."

"I hope so; never did get my supper tonight."

"I need to get a few winks; Coach said he'd put Bobby in tomorrow, so I want to be there."

"Christ boy, die already."

"At least the rain stopped."

"Is that it?"

"Anything left? Can we all go ho—"

It was over. Sheriff Kragg took a deep breath and adjusted his pants.

"Alright Lyle. Bring him down so Mickey can check him out."

The limp shell of a man, whose life took two attempts to end, was lowered onto the floor, and the examiner searched for a pulse.

"Yessiree, this one took him."

As one of the witnesses sneezed his way into the moist air, the minister followed, opening a flask for a long swig.

"Be sure to bury him quick and quiet," the sheriff said as the body, still hooded, was hoisted and dropped onto the bed of a pickup truck. He turned to his nephew. "Get right home, Dougie. I don't need to be in trouble with your mama. Where'd your friend go?"

"Who?" the young man asked. "The sneezer? I didn't know him."

A surprised Kragg watched as the body was driven off before driving his deputy back to the station to collect his car. It was a silent ride, only the click of the blinker asking for alertness. At one point, the car's radio was turned on and then off again.

"Best not to think about it, son," the sheriff advised as they arrived. "Have a swift drink and I'll see you tomorrow."

The young officer nodded, got in his own car, and drove off.

There were few on the overnight patrol, so the station's lobby was empty, a ring-for-service bell on the counter awaiting use. Kragg took a seat at his desk and, by the steady hum of the fluorescent light, removed an unlabeled bottle from his drawer and filled a chipped shot glass. Two consecutive belts did the trick, warming him from the chill of the rain and the business of death. As a third was considered, he noticed a man, average-sized, with black hair, balding, and wearing a mustache, entering through the front door.

"Everything alright, sir?" he asked as he walked from his desk to the counter. "What can I do for you?"

Behind the emotionless man, through the station's front windows, the streetlights glowed in the mist left by the rain. The stranger stared ahead with an almost smile and spoke slowly.

"Everything is fine. I thought I'd stop in and tell you who killed Dirk Barge."

"Too late. That case is closed. All taken care of."

"You all are about as sharp as marbles, aren't you? Now, my brother used to say I was four cents short of a nickel, but least I ain't hanged an innocent man."

Kragg stared at the stranger, whose words were delivered like a punch in the gut, but he offered no reaction to the accusation. Never had someone directly accused him of professional wrongdoing, though there was plenty to be found. No one cared enough, which was how he liked it. It didn't matter if he wasn't right, only that he was never questioned. The trust of the citizens in his jurisdiction was easily earned, and he kept it by allowing them a surface interest in the local law, enough to convince them they were in good hands. The actions made visible to the community were calculated, as were those quietly conducted in the shadows. As long as no one looked too closely, his career was secure.

"I don't know what you're yappin' on about, but I can smell that whiskey on your breath. Now I think you have two options. One, you can sleep it off here in the drunk cage. Or, two, you can go on out of here and leave me the hell alone."

"I'm sorry," the man laughed. "Sometimes I don't think before the words come. But I know who killed old Dirk Barge and it ain't who you thought. You don't want to hear about it?"

"No, I do not. Have a nice night, now."

"Can't blame a man for tryin'." He smiled and took a long swig from a flask. "Good night, Sheriff."

Kragg nodded and watched as the man turned to exit the station but stopped at the door to release an enormous sneeze.

"Sorry," he said, blowing his nose. "Allergies."

Short Story

About the author

Scott Wolstencroft

Scott Wolstencroft is a former arts administrator who writes short stories, poetry, and plays. He resides in New York City.

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