Hannah Morrissey's Hello, Transcriber is a captivating mystery suspense debut featuring a female police transcriber who goes beyond the limits to solve a harrowing case. Every night, while the street lamps shed the only light on Wisconsin's most crime-ridden city, police transcriber Hazel Greenlee listens as detectives divulge Black Harbor's gruesome secrets. As an aspiring writer, Hazel believes that writing a novel could be her only ticket out of this frozen hellscape. And then her neighbor confesses to hiding the body of an overdose victim in a dumpster. The suspicious death is linked to Candy Man, a notorious drug dealer. Now Hazel has a first row seat to the investigation and becomes captivated by the lead detective, Nikolai Kole. Intrigued by the prospects of gathering eyewitness intel for her book, Hazel joins Kole in exploring Black Harbor's darkest side. As the investigation unfolds, Hazel will learn just how far she'll go for a good story―even if it means destroying her marriage and luring the killer to her as she plunges deeper into the city she's desperate to claw her way out of.
Release date: November 30, 2021
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Print pages: 320
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Listen to a sample
I shouldn’t be here.
It’s stark daylight. The evergreens cut sharp silhouettes, arrowheads piercing a pearl sky. Someone will see the woman standing on Forge Bridge and they’ll call the police or try to save me themselves.
No, they won’t. This is Black Harbor, a purgatory where people mind their own. I could scream bloody murder, and it’s not that no one would hear me—someone probably would—but they would write me off, convince themselves that I’m just a rabbit being eaten by a hawk or something.
My heel catches in a knot in a railroad tie. My hands slam on the corroded iron tracks. The skin on my palms tears, the metal like dry ice. Standing back up, I slip off my pumps and set them aside. In my gossamer-thin nylons, I edge toward the middle. It’s the first time I’ve been here in almost ten months. It feels wrong and yet a little bit like coming home. I know this place. The trees with their wet, charred-looking trunks; the smell of fish scales and soil; the coal-blackened bridge that looks like the exoskeleton from some prehistoric beetle, stretching from bank to bank.
Coldness pricks the soles of my feet. I’m still wearing the clothes from my interview earlier this morning.
You’ll have problems here, they told me.
They were a trio that operated as one: a man whose mustache resembled a wire brush my dad would use to scrape coagulated oil off his workbench, and two women; one was fox-faced and squashy, the other wore her black hair pulled into a tight bun and teal, bullet-shaped earrings.
Barely an hour ago, I sat at a large pine table in a nondescript room, wearing the only blazer I own. The lake effect punched through the cement walls, slithered through the seal of the lone window. I wondered if the room was ever used as an office, or reserved solely for interviews, because what would anyone do in there besides slowly go crazy?
When the door opened, I watched them filter in like smoke. My chair screeched as I stood to shake each of their hands. I smoothed my skirt as I sat back down, brushing off a sliver of chewed fingernail.
They stared at me, their clinical smiles simultaneously out of place and yet perfectly in consensus. The man spoke on behalf of all three of them as though they were a modern-day Greek chorus. They asked where I’m from.
“Not here,” I said.
The vulpine lady’s smile deepened, a pair of parentheses framing her lurid red lips.
“Where is home?” the man asked.
H-O-M-E. I typed the word on my lap, beneath the table where they couldn’t see. It’s a habit I picked up somewhere along the way of wanting to be a writer, this compulsion of secretly transcribing conversations. I found liberation in letting my fingertips dance, unbridled by the fear of anyone ever reading the words they spelled.
The man gave me a measured look over the rims of his glasses and I wondered if he could see my fingers moving after all, the tendons in my forearms faintly twitching. Perhaps this was the behavior people noticed when they diagnosed me as strange.
Home. That was a thought. Home was a dirt road that wended its way through a field of oats and barley to a house at the edge of the woods. Home was my dad’s rusted pickup truck, the bed of which I would lie in and stare up at the stars on warm summer nights. Home was the apple orchard behind the house and a maze of Dad’s wood carvings—trees and railroad ties whose armor had been sculpted away to reveal the spirits within: wolves, owls, wise men. Home was the spruce tree tattooed on the back of my arm, just above my elbow, the one I always kept covered when visiting Tommy’s parents.
Home was, “Three hours north.”
They looked impressed, as though I’d walked the 160 miles to get here. “What brings you to Black Harbor?”
“The lake,” I said, and explained that my husband is an aquatic ecologist. He was hired by the City two years ago because the lake was, and still is, devouring the shoreline. Every other day, the news chronicles people’s yards precariously disappearing. All those sediments and landscaping chemicals can’t be doing the aquatic ecosystem any favors.
The two ladies shared a smile, and I reminded myself that they had no idea what it was like up north, where jobs are scarcer than striking oil.
The man spoke again. “If you choose to accept this position, Mrs. Greenlee, everything you type must be treated with the utmost confidentiality. You can’t tell your best friends, your family, even your husband.”
“I’m good at keeping secrets,” I said.
“Your social life will suffer.” Another warning.
“What social life?”
They laughed like I was being ironic. The man leaned back in his chair, arms crossed over his stomach. His tie scrunched to the side, revealing a coffee stain he’d no doubt tried to hide.
“This job is violent and graphic in nature. You’ll have to listen to accounts of things that are … traumatic … to say the least. It’s not for everyone.”
“Is anything?” It was the first time I’d asked a question instead of answering them.
He grinned, his lips peeling away from his teeth. “You’re a clever one, Mrs. Greenlee.”
There it was again. I’d seen it in print like on junk mail and bills, but it wasn’t often that I heard it spoken aloud: Mrs. How it makes one sound hideously domesticated, an unforgivable slaughtering of its better, more scandalous-sounding honorific, Mistress. Now, that was something I could get on board with.
I tried to smile back while I kneaded my hands in my lap, twisting my wedding band. The cold made it so loose.
I needed this job. And I actually wanted it, too. At least it was interesting, and it paid better than any of the others I’d interviewed for. As it turned out, jobs weren’t exactly plentiful in these parts, either. A hard truth I learned pretty quick after quitting the bookstore with nothing else lined up. Not my finest moment.
“It’s a shame putting you on nights.” The man chuckled. “Young kid like you. You’ll never see the light of day again.”
The ladies laughed, too.
“Irregardless, we could always check with the other transcriber and see if she wants to stay on the night shift. Some people like it.”
My insides wilted at his use of irregardless. “No, I’ll take it.”
He leaned toward me, and I got the feeling that the confidentiality agreement had already started. “Forgive me for saying this, Mrs. Greenlee, but you’re very pretty.”
I looked at the women. They just stared like they had since the second they’d walked in.
“You’ll have problems here,” he promised, and then slid me the pen to sign the contract.
It’s too fresh to even have been filed away, and yet the memory seems from another lifetime. The reality, though, is that I’ve just been hired as the new police transcriber and have two days to put myself together, a task that shouldn’t involve edging my way toward the middle of Forge Bridge.
Ever since Forge Fuels closed nearly fifteen years ago, resulting in practically everyone within a fifty-mile radius of Black Harbor losing their jobs, there’s been a localized epidemic of people jumping from the bridge—including the fuel company’s former CEO. That’s when Black Harbor really took a shit, as our neighbor, Old Will, put it. A former maintenance man for the coal giant, his hands are all jacked up from thirty years of turning wrenches. Now, he eats pain pills with his bacon every morning.
My discovery of the bridge had been an accident. Shortly after we moved to Black Harbor, I took to the running trail in the woods across from the duplex Tommy and I split with Old Will and his son. The path stretches and winds through the entire city, but I keep to a five-mile strip that spits me out at Forge Bridge. It called to me like a siren that day, and has every day since. I was already halfway across when I suddenly felt its railroad ties beneath my feet, and I stared for the first time into the cruel black below. Everything went silent, then, as the river demanded something of me. Just one piece. A tribute in exchange for it letting me remain above its obsidian surface.
I’d given it the only thing I could spare from my person, a corded bracelet with my name spelled in yellow and emerald beads. A gift from our honeymoon from a man who walked the shore selling conch shells. Untying it had felt ceremonious. My skin burned where the hemp cord had begun to chafe. I tossed it and watched it twist and writhe like a worm falling from a hook. Then it hit the water and disappeared into the pitch-black water.
I’d smiled afterward. I did. I remember I stood there with the mist soaking my hair, my red long-sleeve clinging to my body. Anyone else might have cried, but the euphoria that flooded my veins was almost too much. It was a rush of accomplishment similar to typing a period at the end of a perfect string of words, a unique thought that existed in print because of me. There is truth, I think, in writers desiring immortality—not for ourselves, necessarily, but for our words, our thoughts, our ideas to live on long after we’re gone. We are addicts, forever chasing the impossible dream, and walking off the bridge—away from its pull—offers a glimpse of it, this ability to cheat death.
The next time I visited, I surrendered a glass shamrock my mother had given to me before she left. Taking it from my book crate had felt like stealing from myself. When I stood on the weather-soaked ties preparing to toss it, I touched it to my lips, not to kiss it but to feel the warmth left by my own hand, perhaps to prove that I am alive and that the items I relinquish to the water never were.
Sometimes I wonder what’s become of the things I’ve given. I like to imagine they’re rinsed clean and moving on to a better place, but a small part of me knows that they’re probably wedged between slick, slimy river rocks, stuck in Black Harbor forever. I wonder about the other things they must encounter—fishing lures and beer cans, muskellunge and minnows, bodies before they pop up to the surface.
My scarf rips free of my jacket as though volunteering to be the next tribute, but the thought of the chill biting at my neck dissuades me. Mylar crinkles in the same wind that rocks me backward, deflated foil balloons tugging at rain-washed, curling ribbon, their length stripped of pigment by the elements and punctuated with broken ends, like an em dash at the end of an unfinished sentence. Below them, a teddy bear leans against a pole, its lavender fur matted and raindrops glistening on its button eyes. Minding my steps, I pick it up and press it to my chest, my chin resting on its plush, wet head. It smells like rain and noxious air and a little bit sweet like maple.
I take a breath and listen as the air whistles through my nose. I can hear the river beckoning me to come closer. Looking down, I watch the river lap against large, snow-encrusted rocks—a monster sucking clean the bones of its prey.
It isn’t fair that the bear is here, in Black Harbor. It could have been anywhere, belonged to anyone who wouldn’t have abandoned it to the wind and the rain and the toxicity that flees the rails of the bridge, fine black spores like gunpowder infecting the air we all breathe, filling all the cracks and fissures of the city. It coalesces to create a gritty film over the place that not only keeps decent people just racing past on the highway but attracts criminals and seedy characters who need somewhere to hide.
I look at my pumps leaning cockeyed against the track. Do they say that here, cockeyed? Or is that another up north word I brought with me? Raindrops glisten and slide down their plastic sides. I’ll need them for work. I start Monday.
Jump, whispers the river. Its voice is a chorus all smashed together; but unlike the three people I met earlier, I can discern each individual fighting to be heard. Voices climb on top of one another, like bodies grappling, trying to claw their way out of the water. They’re lost forever, all those people who jumped. They’ll never leave Black Harbor. Instead, their voices will lace the river, calling to souls like mine to join them in their misery.
My imagination puts me there, next to him, the body I saw one cold April morning. His face was bloated beyond recognition, eyes milky like roe. Dark hair clung to his skull like kelp on the side of a boat’s hull. In my mind, I am floating, staring up at the underbelly of Forge Bridge, at the woman who stands barefoot on the railroad ties, wondering what it would feel like to jump. The corpse and I bump gently against each other like buoys whose anchors are sunk too close in the muck.
I shake the dark fantasy from my head. I’m still up here. Not down there. There’s no dead body in the water, either. Not today. A shiver trickles down my spine. The hair on the back of my neck stands on end. My fingertips are too frozen to feel the bitter bite of the air as I surrender the teddy bear and watch as it falls end over end, finally splashing facedown. I will it to go on and be free. To ride the current out of Black Harbor and wash up anywhere but here. But it just spins in a lazy circle, caught in a relentless whirlpool, and the truth hits me as cold and hard as though I am the one who hit the water. One of these days, I’ll have nothing left to give but myself.
Copyright © 2021 by Hannah Morrissey.
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