The Hanging at the Hollow Tree Excerpt

Chapter 1

Jack (1897)

Detective Jack Winston pinched the bridge of his nose and blinked, but it was no good. The lines of his journal still swam, thanks to the whisky he had enjoyed the night before. He rested his hand on the book. It was probably for the best. He should save the remaining pages for when he needed Riley’s help, not just to recount how his uncle had been overly generous at dinner the night before—the cause of his current state. Still, writing to Riley always picked up his spirits. He would keep it brief.

Just as Winston picked up his pencil, Constable Thomas Miller entered the room. “Sir, there’s a body. In Stanley Park. Young stable boy reported it, poor lad.” Miller fiddled with a button on his cuff. “Found the body hanging near the Hollow Tree.”

Winston rose. The fresh air of the park would help clear his head. He would preserve the journal for more pressing issues. “Call for the carriage, Thomas. We’ll go at once.”


The jostling of the carriage did nothing to help Winston’s head, but as soon as they crossed into the park, he sat forward and inhaled deeply. The air was so pure among the trees, and the fogginess in his head began to clear. Winston had felt the same on his first visit to the park. He had recently arrived in the city and his uncle had taken him on a tour. Private coaches and hansom cabs had lined the park roadway as they approached the Hollow Tree, the eager passengers waiting their turn to see if their carriages could really fit inside its trunk.

Miller’s voice brought Winston back to the moment. “The poor boy was breathless when he got to the station. He couldn’t find the park groundskeeper and thought it best to tell us right away.”

Winston nodded.

“And I notified Evans. He should meet us there.”

As the carriage slowed, Winston saw that rather than a lineup of tourists, a lone horse was tied to a rail at the road’s edge. Ahead of it, a single carriage waited. He recognized it as belonging to Doctor Evans, the city’s medical examiner.

Winston and Miller approached in silence, a blanket of decaying leaves cushioning the sound of their footsteps. Evans stood beside a man Winston didn’t recognize. The doctor turned to nod his greeting, but the other man’s focus remained on the body. Winston braced himself to examine the scene.

The body wasn’t suspended from the Hollow Tree, but from one nearby. The famous landmark had few branches that would be strong enough to hold a man. Still, the location, so close to such a popular destination, struck Winston as a deliberate choice. He pulled his notebook from his satchel, his fingers glancing the journal, and made a note to consider the meaning of this location.

Evans turned from his own notations to exchange greetings with Winston and Miller. He introduced the man beside him as a park groundskeeper. A sturdy fellow in workman’s clothing, he met Winston’s eyes and said, “I was about to climb up and cut him down when the doctor stopped me. Said you’d want to look first.”

He didn’t really want to look, truth be told, but almost immediately, Winston realized what Evans had wanted him to see. He motioned for Miller to look at the ground.

“What are we looking for? I don’t see anything,” Miller said.

“Exactly. What did he stand on?”

“Ah. I see.” Miller nodded and gave his chin a rub.

“Do you have a ladder?” Winston called to the groundskeeper.

“I do, but not with me. I rode up here.” He gestured toward the horse. “I can return with my cart. Do you need anything else? You can use my knife to cut the rope if you haven’t your own.”

Winston produced a pocketknife from his satchel. “We may reach him by standing on a carriage. Before you go in search of that ladder,” he said.

Winston returned his gaze to the body and steadied himself to take in the physical details. Although he’d been training himself to overcome his squeamishness, it was still a work in progress.

“Could he have jumped from the branch?” Miller asked.

“Doubtful.” said Evans.

Winston inhaled and raised his eyes up the body, scanning quickly past the man’s horribly reddened face, to look at the branch. It looked too insubstantial for a man to have jumped from. He wasn’t sure how it was even supporting the body now. He approached the tree and rubbed his hand along the trunk. Its bark was cool, and shards of it flecked onto his palm. In an instant, Winston was back in the neighbourhood park in Toronto, where he and his brother Ellis had played as children. He had stood behind a tree with his eyes shut and couldn’t understand how Ellis had found him in their hiding game. The trunk tree in front of him now would have easily hidden him from Ellis’s view. He smiled at the memory, sliding his hand inside his pocket to feel for the stone Ellis had given him.

Miller’s voice stirred Winston from his thoughts, and he realized he’d missed his question. “Can you repeat that, Thomas?”

Miller’s brows knit in an expression of puzzlement. “I asked how would he have climbed up there? Or the groundskeeper?” He approached the tree and rubbed his hand along the trunk as if to look for what had so gripped Winston moments earlier.

Winston forced his attention back to the dead man. “The groundskeeper has probably spent more time in this park than anyone. He must know how to climb a tree.”

Beside him, Miller shifted his weight as if he were about to walk toward the body. Winston held out his arm. If the hanged man had not done this to himself, they were now investigating a murder. They needed to look for signs of who had been there. “Thomas. Don’t move. Do you see anything on the ground that may be of use? Footprints to suggest how many people were here? Tracks from a cart?”

Miller lowered himself to inspect the area. The ground was covered by a carpet of sodden leaves. He picked up a soggy, yellow leaf by its stem and dropped it again. He stood and crushed it with his boot. When he had failed to leave a mark, he frowned. “Nothing.”

“Very well. Let’s get this man down,” Winston said. “Get the carriage. Stand on the driver’s box. That should give you enough height to reach him.”

Miller blanched at the request. Winston reconsidered. “We’ll do it together. Evans and the groundskeeper can stand on the ground, and the driver can make sure the horses are still.”

After the driver had manoeuvred the carriage close enough to the tree, Winston stepped back and steeled himself for what he was about to do. Miller was taller than he and would have a greater reach. “I’ll hold his legs if you can cut the rope.” He handed Miller the knife and clambered onto the front of the carriage, where the driver sat. Miller positioned himself next to him and steadied himself. Winston closed his eyes and embraced the hanged man’s legs. As Miller worked beside him, Winston concentrated on breathing in the forest air. When he felt the rope slack, Winston panicked, unsure what he was supposed to do with the body.

Below him, Evans called out. “Lower yourself, Jack. Bend at the knees. We’ll take the body from you.”

With his eyelids still pinched tight, Winston felt the slight rock of the carriage as Miller jumped to the ground. The wool of the dead man’s trousers scratched against his cheek. He felt the bile rise in his throat. The driver spoke softly to his horses, “Cush, cush now.”—a welcome distraction. Winston locked his knees as the men shifted the body into their arms, and only after they had relieved him of the weight did he open his eyes and slump against the driver’s seat.

On the ground, the driver produced a flask and shook it at Winston. Tempting, but he declined. It was hardly past nine in the morning. And he had a murder to solve.

Winston joined Doctor Evans, who hovered over the body where it lay on the forest floor. “Will you examine him today? I would like to know what you find.”

Evans nodded. “I can start as soon as I get to the station. Will you inform the man’s wife?”

“The man’s wife? Is he known to you? Have you found identification papers?”

“I don’t need to look for his identification. He is Arthur Pierce, the local businessman. I’ve seen him at the Gentlemen’s Club.” Evans brushed a leaf from his shoulder. “I’m surprised you didn’t recognize him, Detective.”

Kneeling beside Evans, Winston searched the dead man’s face. “Yes, I have met him. Just the once, shortly after I arrived. He looks—. He looks different. My uncle introduced us at one of his dinners.” Winston looked away from the face with its unnatural hue and recalled the pleasant evening and the friendly man. “Hanging is a brutal death.”

“It is, Detective.” Evans pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped at the dead man’s brow.

“You’re certain this is Pierce?”

“Absolutely.” Evans replaced his handkerchief. Winston made a mental note never to accept Evans’s handkerchief if offered. “Jack, his death will cause a stir, no matter the cause, but especially if he was murdered.”

“I know. Before I speak to his wife, I will return to the station to discuss it with Chief Constable Philpott.” Winston stood, brushing his palms on his legs.

“If I’m not mistaken, he knew Pierce well,” said Evans, also rising to his feet.

“Are you returning to the station now?” Winston nodded toward the doctor’s carriage. He had convinced the chief constable to provide Evans with one that could transport the dead. The idea of sharing a carriage with a corpse soured Winston’s stomach. “You can ride with us, if you prefer. But we’ll need to look at the scene a little more.”

Evans rose. “I’ll go with him, Jack. So he doesn’t need to be alone.”

Winston admired the doctor’s compassion for the deceased. “Before you go, how long do you think this man has been dead?”

“It’s hard to know. He is cold, but with today’s temperature, that tells me little.” Evans rubbed his hands together and blew on them as if to demonstrate his point.

“Someone would have noticed the body had it been here yesterday. Even in November, this is a popular destination.” Winston nodded toward the people who had begun to gather at the edge of the roadway. The park groundskeeper was doing his best to send them along. How quickly word spread when people learned of the chance to see something macabre. They were far enough away they wouldn’t have been able to identify the man, and Evans had thought to cover his face with his jacket. Winston opened his notebook to jot a reminder about furnishing Evans with some blankets. He looked up from the page to find the crowd dissipating now the body was out of sight.

“I agree. This happened last night,” Evans said.

Miller returned and the policemen stood in silence as the doctor’s carriage began its descent. As it rounded the bend out of sight, Miller turned to Winston. “What are we looking for, sir?”

“Anything that might help us understand what happened here.” Winston instructed Miller to walk in increasingly wider circles as he stared at the ground. “Let’s do this methodically. Make a note of anything out of place.”

They had been searching for several minutes when Miller called out. Before he approached where the constable stood, Winston bent down and positioned two twigs into a cross formation to mark where he had reached in his search. The younger man stood beside a dark piece of fabric resting on the leaves. “What is it?” Winston asked.

Miller bent to pick up the material and unfurled a glove. He squeezed it through his hand. “It’s damp, but not soaked. It rained yesterday morning and stopped just after noon. I don’t think this spent any time in the rain. It would be soggy.”

“Meaning it was left here in the last twenty hours or so,” Winston said, checking his pocket watch. He reached for the glove. From AP had been embossed near the edge of the interior cuff. AP. Arthur Pierce. “Well found, Thomas. Let’s bring it back to the station.”

They continued their search for another thirty minutes until Winston was satisfied. “We should return. We’ve put off our next task long enough,” he said. He didn’t relish having to inform his uncle about the murder of his friend. Before he climbed into the waiting carriage, Winston stretched his neck to take in the height of the tree, straining to see the top. It must be fifty feet, and from the road, its hollow core was not readily evident.


When they arrived at the station, Winston waved at the desk clerk and pointed to the chief constable’s closed door. The desk clerk shrugged. Winston knocked. 

His uncle, Chief Constable Lawrence Philpott, sat behind the large desk with the morning paper spread across its solid top. He smiled grimly at his nephew. “Jack. I heard there was a body in the park. How did you hear about it?” Winston marvelled at how well rested his uncle appeared despite their celebration of the previous night.

“Young stable boy brought the report.”

“And was there much to it?”

“The body?” Winston swallowed. “Hanged. Doctor Evans attended. He believes the dead man did not hang himself. He couldn’t have managed it alone. Evans is examining the body now.”

“He is efficient. A fine addition to our team, lad.”

Winston forced his shoulders to relax. He needed to tell Philpott about the dead man’s identity, but it was never easy to break the news. “I enjoy working with him. But Evans is not what I have come to talk to you about.” Winston sat, delaying for as long as possible the next moment. “The body in the park. You know him.”

“Not a scoundrel, then. Who is it?”

Winston bristled at his uncle’s assumption that anyone found dead in the park was a ne’er-do-well. “Doctor Evans recognized him as Arthur Pierce. I met him at your house once.”

Philpott’s eyes widened and he leaned across the desk, mouth agape. He inclined an ear toward Winston, as if to hear him better. “Pierce? Dead?” The chief constable blanched. “Hanged? I saw him a few days ago. He seemed well, happy.”

“Where did you see him?” Winston pulled his notebook from inside his jacket.

“Are you interviewing me?”

Winston waved the pencil in the air. “Unofficially, sir. You’re providing context, especially as you saw him in the days preceding his death.”

Philpott licked his lips. “It was at the Vancouver Gentlemen’s Club. Several of us gather for a monthly dinner.”

“Who was present?”

“A selection of men, guardians of the city, if you will.”

“How so?”

“We hold influence in various spheres. Pierce was a money man. He knew who had it, where to get it. I’m the law. We have representatives from the railway, the press, shipping.”


Philpott formed a line with his lips. “I’d rather not share the others’ names, unless it’s vital.”

“It may be later, but I don’t need the information right now. I should speak to Pierce’s wife. If her husband was influential, many will be interested when they learn of his death. It’s better she hears from the police first.”

“I will come with you.” Philpott stood. “I’ve known Caroline for some time. She will appreciate hearing the news from someone familiar to her.” He drew his hand over his face. “You’re certain it was Arthur?” Philpott stood. “You only met him once.”

“Evans recognized him first. He knew him immediately. We can pass by the morgue on our way to see Mrs. Pierce if you like.”

Philpott ignored the offer. “Jack,” he said, extending his arm, “I’m not sure we need to tell her the circumstances.”

“The circumstances? Her husband was murdered. Why spare her of that?”

“If it’s murder, we will investigate. Until Evans is certain, it is sufficient for her to know her husband is dead.”

“I believe Evans was confident it was murder. We could lose the opportunity to find the killer if we wait to investigate.”

Philpott’s face darkened. “Jack. Not a word to the widow about murder until Evans has prepared his report.”

“I don’t understand.” Why was his uncle dismissing his perspective?

“I’m not discussing this.” Philpott set his jaw. “And you’re not to discuss murder with Caroline Pierce until we know more.”

Winston opened his mouth, and Philpott held his hand out to stop the question. “I’ll handle it.”

Without another word, Winston followed his uncle out of the station and into his carriage, unease simmering in his stomach.