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Power games, suspense, and murder. Detective Sergeant Stella Bruno investigates a murder disguised as a suicide, when the body of a young man is found hanging from a tree in the Adelaide Park Lands. Three weeks later, a second body is discovered hanging in Morialta Park and Stella finds herself chasing a serial killer - and hoping for a lucky break. If you enjoy mystery and intrigue, you’ll love A Deadly Game of Hangman, book four in Peter Mulraney’s Stella Bruno Investigates series of quick reads.
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This is a work of fiction. All characters, places and events, other than those clearly in the public domain, are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2017 Peter Mulraney
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Cover image: Redd Angelo | Unsplash.com
Created with Vellum
A note from Peter
Also by Peter Mulraney
The door opened and an oversized man, dressed in a light grey suit and open-necked blue shirt, stepped into the room where John and the others were waiting to learn their fate. Simon Wells, the driving force behind Shakespeare in Prospect, smiled at his audience of expectant faces, and held up the envelope in his right hand for all to see.
This was the moment in the auditioning process John didn't enjoy. He didn't mind doing whatever it was that Simon asked him to do when he was trying out for a role, but he hated missing out on parts he'd set his heart on performing. And, this year, John had set his heart on playing Hamlet, having endured a minor role in the previous year's performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Simon opened the envelope with a flourish, as he did every time, and read out the names of the actors he'd selected for roles in this year's Shakespeare. The room filled with gasps of delight and excited sounds of congratulation.
John stood in shock. He hadn't even been selected for a minor role, let alone the one he'd coveted. He looked around the room. Several faces told him he was not alone in his disappointment. Charlie, Jeremy, and Catherine, who'd all had parts in A Midsummer Night's Dream, had missed out as well. The four of them had been the mainstays of the company over the last few years and John wondered what Simon was up to, but he knew now wasn't the time to ask him.
The actors gathered in the rehearsal room spontaneously split into two groups. The happy players with parts to learn clustered around Simon to listen to his instructions concerning the rehearsal schedule. The disappointed, like John, drifted to the far corner of the room, collected their things and made their way to the bar next door to the theatre to commiserate and complain about being overlooked.
It wasn't as if any of them depended on acting for a living. After all, Simon's venture, Shakespeare in Prospect, relied on amateur performers and they'd drifted into it in order to pursue their love of the theatre. The only person that made any money out of it was Simon, and even he didn't get to pocket much after production costs.
John listened as the others discussed their disappointment and knew their pain, like his, was more about ego damage than anything else. He also knew, that after the initial disappointment had faded, they'd be pitching in and doing things behind the scenes, like they always did, to make the production a success so that there would be a play to act in next year.
But that knowledge did little to soothe his bruised ego, and he wondered what other opportunities might come his way while he waited for next year's auditions, because a year was a long time to wait for his next acting fix.
After several rounds of drinks, the unhappy players went their separate ways, promising each other that they’d catch up again in several weeks when Simon called them in to work on the sets.
The body was hanging from a dark blue rope, attached to one of the gum trees lining the dirt path across the Park Lands on the southern edge of the city, when Stella and Brian arrived at the scene. The shoes on the young man's feet were about thirty centimetres above the ground, dangling next to a small wooden crate. His arms hung at his sides.
Stella looked at the overturned crate and read the advertisement for vine-grown tomatoes plastered across its slats.
'Looks like a suicide,' said Brian.
'I'll wait for the pathologist's opinion on that, Brian.' Stella pushed her hands deeper into the pockets of her overcoat. 'I've seen a few too many apparent suicides turn out to be something else.'
Stella surveyed the early morning scene. Apart from the team of crime scene investigators inside the cordon of blue and white tape, there was a small group of men dressed in running gear talking to the uniformed officers who had responded to their mobile phone call.
Stella watched the puffs of steam escaping their mouths as they talked and pulled her woollen hat down over her ears.
'Ah, Stella,' said Dr Steve Wright, the police pathologist. 'I was waiting for someone like you to turn up so we could cut him down.' Dr Wright pointed to where the rope holding the body was anchored to the base of the tree. 'He knew a thing or two about knots.'
Stella looked at the rope tied to the lower section of the tree and followed it up to the branch that extended over the path the runners had been using for their early morning jog through the Park Lands.
'He must have measured the required length before he tied it off, Steve. There doesn't appear to be much excess rope in that noose.'
'Maybe he was a perfectionist, Stella. Who knows how much time he put into preparing for kicking out that box.'
Stella looked at the flimsy wooden crate and wondered if it would have held the victim's weight long enough for him to slip the noose around his neck and cast himself off into oblivion.
'Has anybody taken a look at the abrasions up there on that branch, Steve?'
'We need to get him down before we can look under the rope, Stella.'
'Can they do that without damaging whatever's up there?'
'They're going to support the body from below and cut the rope.'
As Dr Wright spoke, one of the crime scene investigators returned to the scene with an extension ladder, and carefully placed it against the branch to the left of where the rope cut into the bark.
When the ladder was in place, two members of the team supported the slim body while a third climbed the ladder and cut the rope about a metre above the victim's head. They lowered the body to the ground and stepped aside to allow Dr Wright to examine it.
While Dr Wright examined the neck of the body, one of the crime scene investigators climbed the ladder with a camera and studied the marks the rope had cut into the bark of the gum tree, before photographing them.
When he returned to the ground, he conferred with Dr Wright and then walked over to where Stella was standing.
'Take a look at this, Sergeant.' He handed her the camera and pointed to the screen. 'Those marks rub the wrong way.' He zoomed in on the image and used his finger as a pointer. 'See that? The bark fibres point in the wrong direction. Somebody's pulled something heavy across that branch, Sergeant, before these marks here were made.' He pointed to a second abrasion in the bark. 'That's the mark under the rope that was holding the body. I reckon someone's strung this guy up.'
Stella studied the images. She knew they'd get a better understanding of them when they were enlarged, but she could see the bark fibres pointing up where they should have been pointing down if the victim had thrown the rope over the branch and then hung himself.
Brian came back from talking with the uniformed officers who had been taking statements from the runners.
'They didn't see anything. He was already dead when they found him.'
Stella walked over to the edge of the cordoned off area.
'Any ID on him, Steve?'
Dr Wright searched through the pockets in the victim's jeans and coat.
Stella thought that was another sign he hadn't killed himself.
'What do you reckon, Steve?'
'His neck feels like it's broken, Stella. Can't see how he'd do that falling off that box.'
Stella watched Dr Wright perform his post mortem examination of the body before he started the autopsy. From where she stood beside the bench, the victim appeared to have been a young man in his prime.
'There are fibres in the neck wound.' Dr Wright focused the magnifying glass and used his tweezers to lift the fibres out of the wound. 'Looks like we have two types.' He held up a fibre in his tweezers. 'Hemp, like this one.' He placed the sample into the glass dish his assistant held. 'And, something synthetic, which looks like it comes from the rope around his neck.' He placed the second fibre into the glass dish.
Stella wondered why the killer had used two types of rope.
Dr Wright put down his instruments and looked closely at the neck wound. 'This wound was made by a rope with a diameter at least twice that of the rope around his neck.'
'What?' said Stella, coming back into the room from the mental excursion Steve's comments about different rope fibres had triggered.
'I think your victim was hung using a hemp rope and, if I'm right about the vertebrae in the neck, he wasn't killed jumping off a tomato crate in the Park Lands.'
It was starting to sound as though her initial scepticism had been well grounded, thought Stella.
Dr Wright turned his attention to the victim's wrists and examined them closely under the spotlight. 'There's bruising on the wrists, not much, but enough to suggest they were bound with something prior to death.' He looked at the victim's finger nails. 'There's no sign he fought to remove the rope either here or on his neck.'
'So, we're not looking at a suicide?' said Stella.
'Doesn't look like it to me,' said Dr Wright.
Stella watched and waited while Dr Wright uncovered the fractured vertebrae in the victim's neck.
'This guy was dropped from quite a height, Stella, like they used to use for hangings.'
Stella pictured the hanging scene from the last Ned Kelly film she'd seen and imagined the victim dropping and coming to a sudden stop at the end of the rope. She shuddered. The thought of dying that way was too much for her to think about.
'How old do you reckon he was, Steve?'
Stella felt despondent, and she knew it wasn't from standing in a room with a partially dissected body on the table next to her. She wondered who had killed the boy on the table, but couldn't imagine what sort of person would hang another.
'Has he been sexually abused?' said Stella.
'Doesn't look like it.'
At least she wouldn't have to tell the boy's parents he'd been sexually abused as well, thought Stella, as she watched Dr Wright place organs back into the body.
'So, death by hanging, then, and not misadventure?'
Dr Wright pulled off his gloves. 'You're looking at a victim of homicide, Stella.'
After the post mortem, Stella and Brian met with DI Williams in his office.
'We're looking at murder, sir. There's no way he died on the end of the rope we found him dangling from in the Park Lands,' said Stella.
'What makes you think that, Bruno?'
'According to the pathologist, his neck injuries are consistent with having been hanged with a hemp rope and dropped from a height sufficient to fracture the vertebrae in his neck, and the bruising on his wrists is consistent with them having been bound before he died.'
Stella handed DI Williams a photograph from the crime scene showing the body hanging with its feet barely off the ground.
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