The first shooting happened on a Monday. A man walked through the downtown office of a small insurance firm looking for someone in particular, and, upon finding him, opened fire, sending a single bullet through the accountant’s forehead.
The murder rocked our town of Highgate mainly because of the manner of death. As our local nightly news breathlessly reported, it was a precision shot made from some distance away by a man who clearly knew what he was doing in the full view of multiple witnesses.
Pictures of the killer appeared on the screen—fuzzy CCTV images of a heavyset man in a black hoodie followed by a black and white, badly rendered police sketch of a bald, scowling meathead that looked so comically stereotyped that I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn they had pulled it from a file marked “Generic White Skinhead”.
The victim’s name was Shawn Briden, the report continued, and he was a mild-mannered man with a wife and daughter. He had lived in the town all his life, had no criminal history and no links to drugs or gambling.
He was, it seems, as starched white collar as they come.
We’d had a few murders here before, of course—no town of our size escapes them—but mostly they were crimes of passion—spouses offing each other in moments of frenzy—or a spat between rival gangs competing over the small drug dealing terroritory in the ugly bit just beyond the railway station.
These types of murder were usually enough drama for a good few hours heated discussion the next day. There’s nothing quite like having one in your own backyard to really make you feel like you’re part of it.
For the crimes of passion, you could divide the office (I worked in the regional office of a major travel agency) roughly in half, with the “He probably deserved it” crowd on one hand and the “Death is too good for her” crowd on the other.
The gang violence people had less patience for, although a few of our more extreme left wing colleagues believed that rehabilitation was the answer, not incarceration.
Frankly, I wish they’d bring back the death penalty and make a public spectacle of it like they did in medieval times. It would halve crime overnight.
This murder, however, was clearly something else entirely. I realised this as soon I saw our line manager, Lynn, discussing it in our neon-lit office kitchen on Tuesday morning.
Lynn was a tall forty year old brunette with long curly hair, small eyes and a nose you could open the office mail with. She wore tightly fitting suits that were about a decade too young for her and was forever tugging down the bottom of her skirts. She was one of those preachy liberal types that was always talking about her yoga and her juice diets.
“Oh, I never watch the news,” she would often proudly declare to any group in the office that she happened to overhear discussing the previous day’s events. She’d then walk away with an air of disgust, as if we had been talking about the details of our most recent defecation.
That Tuesday, however, she was very much involved. When I walked in, she was locked in a battle of who could publicly display the most empathy with Hilary.
Hilary was in her mid-fifties, chubby, with half-moon glasses that she kept attached to her with a fake pearl chain around her neck. She owned a wide array of brightly coloured knitted cardigans and she had quickly become the office mum—she was the one you went to when you wanted a sympathetic ear and she always made a delicious homemade cake for your birthday.
“It’s the poor wife, having to deal with all of this, that I’m thinking about,” Hilary was saying. “I mean, could you imagine? Lord knows what I would do if something happened to my Derek.”
“The wife?” Countered Lynn, tugging at her skirt and ready to throw down her trump card. “What about the little girl? How do you ever get over something like this? To have to go through this at such a young age? The poor child. It’s terrible. Absolutely terrible.”
I nodded hello to the group then dished out the instant coffee into a variety of mugs that said things like “World’s Best Mum” and “You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps!”. The kettle had already been boiled, so I filled the mugs and handed them out in silence as we all considered just how terrible it was.
I noticed it was already well past nine, but with Lynn involved there’d be no work any time soon provided we could keep the conversation going.
“So, why do you think he was targeted?” I asked after what I considered to be an appropriate amount of reflection time.
The chatter grew animated as theories were carved up to be chewed on and digested or thrown out. We happily contradicted the reported facts in pursuit of the most interesting story (it’s funny how quickly the most interesting becomes the most likely). It was drugs. It was gambling. He was in witness protection and had been tracked down.
“It’s a cover-up,” said Erik finally, wiping his nose with a dirty white handkerchief.
Erik was our scruffy thirty year old office administrator. He was thin and sickly looking with a perpetually runny nose. This, he said was caused by house dust mite, which was everywhere apparently.
“It’s too professional,” he continued. “Too clean to be an amateur. And the way he did it in front of all those witnesses and cameras? It’s cause he knew he’d get away with it, innit?”
There was a round of groaning and eye-rolling and it caused Lynn to suggeset that we should all get back to work. Erik’s Government Conspiracy Theory was our shared cue that the conversation had gone on for too long.
I checked the clock on my phone as I made my way back to my desk and found that we’d managed to draw out the discussion for a good hour and a half. I was a little put out—if Erik hadn’t had brought up his crackpot theory, I was pretty sure we could have made it until lunch.
When the reports came in just after Wednesday lunchtime that a local Catholic priest had been murdered in a similar style, we all stopped what we were doing and clustered around Erik’s computer to watch the reports. It had been promoted to a national story and now all of the major news sites had posted videos about it.
The man, wearing the same hoodie, had entered the church through the front door following the morning service, walked down the aisle of the church and murdered Father Oliver Hodkinson on the alter, leaving him face down in a pool of blood on the alter steps, a giant wooden Christ hanging ominously on the cross above him.
At least, that’s how we pictured it. Disappointingly, the news coverage simply showed the outside of the church which was surrounded by blue and white ‘Police Do Not Cross’ tape. The female presenter stood in front of it looking suitably serious and delivering the facts in the somber and confident tone of someone assured of her own importance in the story.
Online, the story had graduated into having its own hashtag on Twitter (#HighgateHitman) and Subreddit (/r/HighgateHitman) where theories were being dissected carefully by armchair slueths at the exact same time as they were being blown out of all proportion by overexcited dramatists.
Then there were the threads that were complaining that the country had “gone to the dogs” and that these murders were a symptom of a society that had lost its moral centre.
I bookmarked a few of those for later, especially the ones about immigrants.
The most interesting threads to us in the office, though, were those that presumed that the two victims were connected somehow despite the police stating publicly that they could find none at present. “Just because they can’t find the connection,” pointed out one Facebook user on the Highgate Hitman Facebook page, “doesn’t mean there isn’t one.”
“An astute observation,” said Erik as he skimmed through the comments.
“I’ll put the kettle on,” I said, heading to the kitchen.
Hilary, Lynn, and I spent the next half hour in the kitchen discussing one theory that had hit the top of Reddit: That this was vigilante justice. After all, a Catholic priest could not be in the news without someone bringing up the obvious pedophile connection.
The priest, so the theory went, was grooming children and Briden was buying access to them. The Highgate Hitman, learning of this abhorrent situation and with little faith in our legal system to bring them to justice, decided to take the law into his own hands and become a vigilante hero.
I was about to open another packet of Digestives when Erik called us over from his computer. We all huddled around him as he showed us a post in his Facebook feed from the Highgate Hitman page:
“Police confirm child pornography on Briden’s computer after hacker infiltration. #HighgateHitman”
“Now look at this,” said Erik as he pointed to the number of shares.
“Someone on the page in the comments was saying: ‘This is our moment. This is when we shows the police how it’s done.’” Erik continued. “Isn’t that crazy? Apparently the police hadn’t even looked at Briden’s computer yet so some guy takes it upon himself to hack into it and finds a bunch of child porn. Nuts, right?”
We all agreed that it was, indeed, nuts that a social media site had outdone Her Majesty’s Police Force.
“The world sure is changing,” said Lynn.
The next morning, a Detective involved in the case appeared on television.
“We would urge the the public not to indulge in unhelpful speculation,” he said at a press conference dressed in his blue uniform, his eyes with dark rings under them. “The two victims do not appear to have known each other, nor can we find any evidence of any previous criminal activity.”
“What do you think?” Asked Hilary, after we regrouped in the kitchen following the statement. She popped open a Tupperware full of freshly baked chocolate brownies and offered them around.
“Oh, Hilary, you’ll make me fat!” Laughed Lynn, helping herself to the largest one like she always did.
“Well, it’s embarrassing for the police, isn’t it? Even if there was kiddie porn, they wouldn’t want to look like they’ve been outdone,” said Erik, leaning against the cheap grey plastic countertop with a mug that said: “Old IT types don’t die, they just go offline”
“For once, I’d agree with you,” said Lynn. There’s definitely an incentive for them to lie here.”
“Did you see Syke’s op-ed calling it ‘embarrassing’ this morning?” I asked, grinning.
They said they hadn’t, so I explained about how some of the less scrupulous news outlets had reported this Facebook post as confirmed fact and now the news outlets that had been more restrained had jumped on the detective’s statements with gusto, publishing editorials calling the behaviour of their fellow journalists “a monumental breach of their audience’s trust” and the users involved “unhelpful amateurs”. Some went so far as to say they were “damaging the investigation and causing great harm”.
The glee in the tones of the writers as they delivered their jabs to new media was apparent, although a couple tried to take the angle of noble responsibility, calling the lack of proper investigation on the part of their colleagues a “failing of the Fourth Estate” and stating that they needed to “redouble their efforts to rebuild the public’s faith in journalism.”
Me, I thought the whole thing was bloody great.
Sadly, the next murder did put a stop to all this introspection and it also helped stick a pin in the pedophile theory for all but the most devout believers, which included Erik for about an hour before we convinced him to drop it.
This time it was a young woman, gunned down at a bus stop at eight forty on Friday morning.
“They really need to catch him now,” said Lynn, yanking at her hemline. “I’m scared to go down to the car park at night after work.”
“I’ll walk down with you, if you’d like?” Offered Erik.
“Would you? Thanks. It would certainly make me feel better,” said Lynn, placing a hand on Erik’s shoulder and giving him a thin smile through her visage of overwrought concern.
“Certainly makes you think,” Hilary said.
We all nodded. The only thing I was thinking, though, was that Lynn’s dramatics and Erik’s wilder conspiracies were getting a little boring.
New theories were floated, new connections between the victims established, but it was definitely half-hearted. The wind behind this story was failing.
Thankfully, on Sunday, the police announced that they had arrested a man, Ryan Buller, in connection with the three murders. He was an ex-SAS man who had served for twelve years before leaving the forces in what was reported as being “secretive circumstances”.
The same detective as before went on camera to say that that “these brutal and remorseless murders” were against “random victims who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“We’ll never know the full facts,” said Erik, shaking his head sadly at work the next day. “They’ll never tell us.”
I nodded. I have to admit, I had started to come around a bit to some of Erik’s less extreme ideas. There were a lot of incentives to reduce the connection between the victims for both the media and the police. Perhaps there was more to it than we were given?
We briefly discussed the arrest and the man, deciding that he certainly looked like the kind of person that could murder three innocent victims before moving on to punishment.
“Well, they need to lock him up for a jolly long time,” said Hilary. “Although we should try to find out why he did it. That’s what I can’t understand, why? Maybe if we can find out, we can stop something so horrible happening again.”
“Why? Because he’s a bloody psychopath, that’s why! We should bring back the death penalty, just for him,” I said, causing Hilary to wince slightly.
“Well, I’m just glad they got him,” said Lynn. “Erik, did you find that email from IT for me?”
This was our cue to get back to work.