“Of course, tales of nastiness and murder are always handed down with slavering delight from generation to generation…” — Stephen King, Salem’s Lot
Why did Dr. Garvey change the double doors at the back of the president’s office?
Some say it was because bugs were creeping in and Garvey did not want his office infested. Others say that he wanted to avoid the scandals which tormented his predecessor, even though the backdoor system is often the best way of getting things done at the top level. Yet rumors have crept into the campus newspaper office suggesting that the new president has more serious motives for renovating the doors.
As the story goes, the president’s office was once used as a viewing room: an area where last respects could be paid to the deceased. After funeral services in the campus chapel, a funeral car would ordinarily remove the body through the back door and take it away for burial or cremation. However, on one January occasion, the snowfall was so severe that the funeral contractors could not get to the chapel, leaving the body of a young widow overnight, defying the grief-ridden schedule of a very distraught rural family.
Mercy College is a mid-sized Catholic school in Pennsylvania. It grew around an old chapel which later expanded into a nunnery. Even today, the first floor features a beautiful neo-gothic chapel adjacent to the main reception area. On the opposite side of this lobby are the school’s oldest offices, the president’s among them. In earlier days, this was one continuous area, a fact still noticeable to careful observers, such as Gabriel O’Connell.
One of the college paper’s more diligent reporters, he was deep in the library stacks collecting eyewitness reports from the “night of the empty coffins.” Most accounts agreed regarding basic details; the night was bleak, wintery, and dark as further snow settled. The family was understandably upset by the delays, but the patriarch understood the reality of the situation. Winters in the Great Lakes can be brutal, and there was little sense in risking the lives of the living for the convenience of the dead.
When morning came, the Sister Superior came to check on the room. At the time, the mid 1930’s, the nuns still operated the place (its transition from nunnery to college was still a few years away). She found an empty coffin, apparently blown over by the wind which had opened the double doors. Through the snow, however, she observed shallow insertions that could have been the ghostly footprints of the former widow. Police investigators thought corpse-snatching a more rational explanation, though no one could guess to what end someone would do this.
To this day, no one has solved the mystery of the “ghost” in the president’s office. Many reports have been issued of those double doors flying open in the calmest of conditions, and people have claimed sightings of a “fluffy skeleton-like figure” scuttling through the hallowed ground of the building. But Dr. Garvey wants no more of the rumors and asked the college paper to report that all was well. This was not a formal request, mind you—such a thing could be construed as a misuse of power—but then again, the concept of quid pro quo is hardly unknown among journalists.
Gabriel, a man of religious integrity, was unhappy with the situation but accepted it out of loyalty to his boss. In all likelihood, there was no truth to the supernatural rumors and therefore no danger to the student body. Still, he didn’t want to leave anything to chance and decided to conduct his own nocturnal investigation. The library stacks could be found in the basement, in a dust-imbued corner seldom visited by either students or faculty. Yet, Gabriel always had a strange affinity for the place; he appreciated its quiet atmosphere and the relative privacy it afforded those diligent enough to use it. He was no stranger there. Of course, students with intentions other than studying were known to spend time there as well, but that’s another topic.
The college paper, the uncreatively-named Campus Gazette, had been in more-or-less continuous print since the late 1950s. Conveniently, it had only gone through half-a-dozen editors during this time, leading to a fair degree of consistency across the decades. Gabriel was familiar with many of the more storied episodes of the college’s history: the suicidal nun of the 1940’s, the polio epidemic, the stolen ring, the exorcism in Warde Hall…perhaps the most infamous account was that of the abandoned tower, a seemingly cursed construction site which ultimately collapsed, but not before it had already claimed the lives of several workers. Yet, despite such learning, Gabriel was at a loss to explain the empty coffins.
Both the Sister Superior and the police investigators reported seeing a single pair of footprints leading away from the doors. This complicated the body-snatching theory, as even if there was only one perpetrator, he would likely struggle to carry the body, especially in those extreme winter conditions. The tracks seemed to continue on indefinitely, with the marks gradually getting obscured by more recent snowfall. The police never found the end of them. The family had gone from distraught to despondent, and were indignant when the police arrived to question them. The investigators seemed satisfied that they were not responsible for the disappearance and left the case unsolved a few months later.
Gabriel, however, was able to develop a unique insight. He realized that every reported sighting of the widow’s ghost was in close proximity to other supposed hauntings in the oldest building of campus. These included the possessed paintings (in which the artist had supposedly placed his soul so as to prolong his life) and a late professor who promised to, in spirit, “always remain in these halls.” There was also the scarred student: a beautiful yet vain girl who reportedly was blemished by a fire in the girls’ dormitory and killed herself as a result, but Gabriel was not quite sure if he believed in that tale. So far as O’Connell could tell, he was the only one to identify this geographic proximity.
Even more interesting to him, however, was the fact that the widow, whose name shall be omitted, seemed to have spent a surprising amount of time on campus following her husband’s death. His funeral had been held in the chapel nearly a year prior and she would frequently return to the place thereafter. More often though, she would be seen outside the chapel, wandering the halls of the oldest buildings. If anyone at the time thought this odd, it went unreported, as the newspaper tone was always neutral and almost disinterested.
Further research unveiled that she apparently came to be acquainted with Dr. Thomas, the president at the time. She was observed to have visited his office on multiple occasions, no doubt to be consoled for her loss. At the time, it is understandable why local observers may have never thought twice about it, but…well, the reader can guess where Gabriel’s thoughts were going with this. The question was, did this “familiarity” begin before or after the husband’s death? If it were the former, the faint traces of a motive may begin to form.
He didn’t want to project too much into this speculation, however. He was perfectly aware that most writers insert their own biases and mental states into their reports. The fact that his own family had endured scandal under similar circumstances should not cloud his mind. More evidence was needed.
Leaving the library stacks, he made his way out of the building and down the brick alleyways linking the campus. For reasons he did not quite understand, this case had captured his attention unlike anything else. It was normal for him to get absorbed into his work, both academic and paid, but this was of an order of magnitude beyond that.
He thought he could use a beer but considered it unwise to partake on a weeknight. He wasn’t an alcoholic; quite the contrary, he thought that he functioned better with a little poison in the bloodstream. His mind ordinarily raced at 100 miles per hour and in multiple directions. A beer (or two) calmed it down, allowing him to concentrate. Yet, he thought better of it and opted to go directly to the campus chapel.
Much has been said of Gothic architecture. Some of the wisest minds in the history of Western civilization contributed to their design, constituting an art form altogether lost in the modern day. The style exploded onto the European scene in the twelfth century, seemingly from nowhere. It is widely believed, even more so at the time, that the art had a Near Eastern origin. The returning Crusaders certainly brought much learning back with them from the Orient, both of Saracenic and pre-Islamic origin. Indeed, modern investigators cannot help but see striking similarities between French Gothic facades and the remains of Templar and Hospitaller strongholds in the Holy Land, but Gabriel remained skeptical. Some of the more eccentric writers of the nineteenth century claimed that alchemical, Pythagorean, and astrological wisdom could be found encoded in such architecture, wisdom inherited from Egypt and Judea. Gabriel had had access to certain old books to that effect, but they were so imbued with untranslated Latin and Greek puns that he struggled to make heads or tails of them.
Walking into the chapel, Gabriel wished that there was some truth to these suggestions. If nothing else, they were a source of hope and inspiration for him, providing the comforting idea that men with better ideals were once at work in the world. In any event, the atmosphere certainly lifted his mood. The iconography of Biblical scenes and the icons of the saints served to turn his mind toward prayer and contemplation. He understood why a bereaved widow would come to such a place for comfort.
He consciously tried to place himself in the shoes of those he was investigating. This helped to humanize personalities which were often easily demonized and dismissed, and also to inform his writing. It is easier to set a scene if one has traveled there himself, if one has seen the sights, smelled the smells, and felt the environment directly. He contributed no small portion of his success to this practice.
After some time taking in the scene, he proceeded to the nave on the northern wall, wherein the O’Neill family crypt could be found. The patriarch of this family was one of the school’s foremost benefactors, though he came under significant financial scandal during the Great Depression. Legend had it that he was involved in Gatsby-like business affairs, smuggling alcohol into the area from Canada. More interesting to Gabriel was the fact that this is the spot where the still-living widow was most commonly sighted. In the years before O’Neill’s death, the nave had been reserved for the Adoration of the Host, a Catholic contemplative practice well known to those of Irish origins.
The chapel was almost completely unchanged from the time of its construction. History seemed to exist in layers to Gabriel, and one can peel back the onion layers by visiting historically significant places. After a few minutes, he walked out of the chapel and into the main campus building, but he kept his mind in the past. He tried to see the place as it existed in the 1930’s: architecturally the same but ascetically different. Men wore simple black suits and women the modest dresses of the period. Blues and jazz tunes could be heard playing softly in the background and a light smell of cigarette smoke permeated the entire scene.
Concentrating harder, the music ceased, and Gabriel could see a crowd begin to appear. A somber crowd, they were exiting the chapel in procession. An organ was playing now, and Gabriel thought he could even hear traces of Gregorian chanting. He sat on a bench in the lobby and simply observed them for a few moments. Most had the appearance of locals, dressed simply in the manner of country folk. He heard a smattering of both English and Pennsylvania Dutch spoken, with some conversations switching back and forth mid-sentence. Prior to the world wars, Pennsylvania Dutch/German was extremely common and not limited to the Amish and Mennonite communities the way it is today. As a matter of fact, immigrants to Pennsylvania would often learn Dutch before English, something hard to picture today.
Gabriel’s mind was dwelling on such things when he saw her. He recognized the widow intuitively. She was watching the proceedings but was apparently unnoticed by the grievers. Gabriel understood that she was only there in spirit, watching her own funeral. At one point she looked in his direction, but he had the impression that she was looking past and not at him. Her ghost was as much a part of this flashback as the other funeral attendees. She was not present now, corporeally or otherwise.
His head began to ache. Concentrating in such a way put considerable strain on the human brain, and symptoms reminiscent of a tension headache are a near-inevitable result. He was about to get up and look for some aspirin when the scene changed again, this time without his effort. He saw the widow once more, this time a much more lifelike apparition, walking alone down the hall from the chapel at night. Her’s was a curious disposition. Gabriel got simultaneous impressions of nervousness, anticipation, guilt, and…excitement? If she was aware of his presence, she did not show it. Passing him after a few moments, she continued down the hall toward the old offices. Having little doubt as to her destination, Gabriel got up to follow her.
The moment he crossed the threshold between the lobby and the old hallway the scene changed yet again. He was no longer following an apparition in the present day, but rather found himself in the 1930’s. It was as though he had actually stepped into his earlier vision, present now as an actor and not just as a spectator. He would have been struck more deeply by this had he not heard a heated argument down the hall. Distinct words were not discernable, but in such situations, vocabulary is secondary to the emotions charging them.
Contrary to his expectations, the shouts were not coming from the president’s office, but rather from another room across the hall. Nor was the widow party to the argument, but an unseen observer. She was listening with her ear to the door, her expression now a combination of shock and fright. As Gabriel worked his way toward the scene he began to comprehend specific exchanges. Financial matters were clearly the main concern, and criminal intent was evident.
He had almost made it to the door when a man was violently pushed through it. The door flew open and the man’s body violently struck the eavesdropper, knocking them both to the cold floor. The impact was hard, and the widow lay motionless thereafter. The man staggered back to his feet, but anther strode through the door and was upon him before he had regained his bearings. The second man strangled the first against the wall, at times slamming his victim’s head into the brick until he resisted no more. Haggard, sweaty, and probably intoxicated, this second man now stood above the bodies of his two victims…and looked directly at Gabriel.
He woke up on the lobby bench.
He had apparently fallen asleep after exiting the chapel, and had a splitting headache. Looking down the hallway, he was relieved to say that he was back in the present day. Gabriel never had such a vivid dream before and had no desire to experience it again. He opted to simply go home and rest, his first practical decision all night.
The next day, he presented his boss with his preliminary report. It addressed the relevant rumors and urban legends, saying that there was no evidence to substantiate any of them. Apparently satisfied with this, Gabriel was informed that it would be printed the following day. Mentioning that he was ill, O’Connell asked for a few days off, which were granted without argument.
On his way home, however, he returned to the library stacks. There was something Gabriel just couldn’t dismiss, something he had seen in his feverish dream which troubled him. Making his way to the newspaper reels, he spent a few minutes looking through them before he found what he was looking for. When he did, he knew that his work was far from done. The murderer he had seen the previous night had been a young man and bore an uncanny resemblance to someone which Gabriel could not quite place. But as he found that newspaper entry from 1931, there could be no doubt. The young man’s picture was there, plain as day. It was none other than a collegiate Dr. Garvey, then a part-time accountant for Mercy College.
If such a man could commit two murders and never be suspected, if he could work in the same offices day in and day out for decades, would he not be devious enough to fake an otherworldly disappearance? Could he have devised a means of covering up his crimes with a fake suicide? A jump from the college’s roof would certainly explain her bruises and broken ribs…and if she had developed a scandalous relationship with his wayward business partner…it all fit too perfectly. Gabriel was honestly impressed, though this did little to curve his loathing. This would be the story of his career, launching him into the proverbial big leagues. If he could get a confession on tape via a hidden recorder…
Gabriel O’Connell was found strangled to death outside the campus chapel on January 5th at the age of 22. No suspects have been identified by the police. The investigation is ongoing.
Daniel Bretton is a wayward son of New England. A simple, philosophically-inclined man, he wanders the world in search of wisdom, both worldly and Godly. Like Herodotus, he reports what he sees and leaves the reader to draw his own conclusions.