The festivities in town were slowly petering out as the eleven o’clock hour approached. The earlier-packed sidewalks along the main drag, crowded with assorted craft and food vendors, were opening back up in ten-foot sections at a time as booths were disassembled. The trendy watering holes were still flush with business. The locals shuffled through the crowds grumbling about quieter times, while the newly of-age drinkers were busy testing the waters and carving out a space for themselves at the bar. The clusters gathered around family activities had diminished proportionately with the ages of the children attached to the extended arms of their parents. Cafés and eateries were cleaning up after a long day of serving sandwiches, dinners, sweets, and coffee to an overwhelming flock of locals and out-of-towners in for the festival. The assortment of local college students hired for the event were busy wiping down tables, eagerly anticipating a second wave of good tips. About another thirty minutes they figured, as soon as the parents washed the cotton candy and ice cream off all the little faces and they were nestled snugly beneath their covers.
“Promise,” a shrill voice called out from one of the tables on the sidewalk in front of the Auburn Coffee House. “Sheriff Flynn, do you have a minute?”
As Sheriff Flynn approached the coffee house, she couldn’t help but notice Mrs. Johnson seated at one of the tables on the sidewalk. Policing the festival activities and the swelling of the population proved a long and tiring three days. Chitchat remained at the bottom of her list of things to do at that moment. She had hoped her hastened step, lowered head, and obvious intention of ignoring any recognition of her would give the impression of being off on police business. She paused, looking over the tops of the crowd, hoping to see some sort of minor criminal activity going on. Nothing major, she thought to herself. Public urination would work. Littering. A dog walker not scooping. Anything? Her thoughts eventually drifted to the possibility of a shootout in front of the bank as not being such a bad option at that moment. It wasn’t to be. She caught a glimpse of Mrs. Johnson out of the corner of her eye still waving. Not a distraction in sight. This town is too damn law abiding.
“Sheriff Promise Mary Flynn,” called out Mrs. Johnson, as if addressing a petulant child. “I’ve got a matter we need to discuss.”
Sheriff Flynn tucked her hopes of a shootout away and walked over to the table. She took a deep breath and forced a smile. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Johnson, I didn’t see you there. You see, I’m on my way—”
“Nonsense,” replied Mrs. Johnson cordially but firmly. “There is always a moment for two civil servants to compare notes. Besides, you have a whole department to handle the day-to-day policing of this fine town.” Mrs. Johnson paused, looked out over her reading glasses at the sheriff, giving the attractive, tall blond the onceover. “You know, it wouldn’t break any laws if you did something with your hair other than stuffing it under that hat.” She gave a petite snort to signal the end of her analyzing glance.
“With a little eye shadow, I would imagine some men might even find you attractive.”
Sheriff Flynn clenched her teeth into what might be construed as a smile and groaned. Forget the bank, a shootout right here will work just fine. “If this is about the missing money from the swim club account, Hank has been quietly looking into it. I can assure you—”
“No. No. No!” Mrs. Johnson replied, looking around and making sure no one was listening. “Please keep your voice down. I don’t want anyone to know I’ve asked you to look into that.”
Promise bit her inside cheek, continuing the conversation through clenched teeth. “Is there something else on your mind, Alice?”
“Yes. There is something much more urgent I believe we need to discuss,” said Alice Johnson. She pushed out the chair across from her with her foot, giving a nod of direction to the sheriff. “Have a seat, this will only take a minute. It’s the well-being of our citizenry at stake, and I know it’s as much a priority to you as it is to me.”
There was no escape. Short of an actual crime being committed at that very moment right in front of them, Flynn had no choice but to sit, smile, and listen to what the councilwoman had on her mind. “Well-being of the citizenry? I’m not sure I understand.”
The councilwoman pulled a green folder from her oversized canvas tote, placing it down on the table in front of Flynn. “As you can tell by these photos, I’ve made an extensive investigation of that dangerous curve out by the old asylum. This photo here,” she continued, nudging one of the photos out from the pile, “is of particular interest. You see that guardrail? I kicked it a few times, and it broke clean away from the support going into the ground. It’s that way along the entire length of the curve. It’s a deathtrap. I know this is a highway department matter, but I can’t stand by when a potential hazard to the fine people of this town is being ignored.”
Sheriff Flynn picked up the photo, making a careful examination of the evidence. “Those temporary barricades should be just fine.” She pointed to one in particular in the photo. “Like this one you had to move in order to get close enough to kick the guardrail. As long as no one moves them again, these will certainly protect the fine citizens of Auburn Notch.” Promise paused for a moment. “I believe there is also a sign directing people to use the fire access road as an alternative. It’s just up around the bend from that curve.”
“Nobody is going to use that narrow, dirt road. I certainly wouldn’t. Besides, most people don’t even know it’s there.”
“Well, I’m not sure what else I can do. At this point it’s a matter between you and the highway department.”
“Luke Sanders said he has money appropriated to replace the old guardrail in the new budget, but his department has a few other matters higher on his priority list.” Councilwoman Johnson tidied up the pile of photos and slipped them and the folder back into her tote. “Those wooden barricades might be fine to block off a parade route, but a speeding car will go right through them and over that embankment.”
Sheriff Flynn rose from her seat, eyeing her deputy coming in her direction at a hastened pace. No matter what he wants, she thought to herself, it was going to be an important matter in need of my immediate attention. “Everyone knows how treacherous that stretch of road is. I can’t image anyone speeding around that curve. If it will make you happy, I’ll talk to Luke and see if we can’t get a few more caution signs posted further down the road in both directions until his men can get out there. In the meantime, try not to kick it anymore.”
Councilwoman Johnson’s eyes narrowed at the insinuation. She responded with a grunt and a halfhearted smile. “Thank you, Promise, I knew I could count on your support.”
Sheriff Flynn nodded. She felt a light tap on her shoulder.
“Sorry to interrupt, ladies.”
“What is it, Hank?” replied the sheriff brightly; uncharacteristically appreciating his interruption whether or not it turned out to be his usual bellyaching about something he would have done differently.
“It may be nothing, Sheriff,” replied Hank, turning the sheriff away from the table and speaking quietly, “but we got a report there’s a lit candle in a second floor window of the old mental hospital. I’ll take care of it, I just wanted to let you know I’m goin’ up there.”
Sheriff Flynn didn’t respond. A quick gasp stole her voice. She glanced passed Hank, her eyes rolling upward following the tree line. There, perched on a granite crag a thousand or so feet in elevation above the town, were the weathered edges of slate gables piercing the silhouette of a tired length of pine trees. Where the spikes and dips clustered together were a fair representation of the past health of such a grand structure, the sharp drop-off to a flat, indigo tree line is deathly expressive of its sudden and tragic end. Little more than the discarded shell of how it once appeared, there remained a slight whisper of evil in its squalid halls. To Promise, this evil had a different voice. A voice she never wanted to hear again.
“It’s those damn kids,” moaned Mrs. Johnson, her hearing as acute as rumor had it. “You know, that group that walks around here dressed in black with those God-awful tattoos and piercings. Vampires, that’s what I say they are. Black shirts. Black pants. Black boots. Skulking about at night. Always up to no good. What decent child has coal-black hair with a white streak running down the left side? Up to no good, that’s what I say. I’ve a mind to call their parents in front of the next council meeting . . .”
“Are you okay, Sheriff?” Hank whispered under Mrs. Johnson’s rant.
Sheriff Flynn’s eyes remained fixed on the asylum. The chill running up her spine muffled any recognition of what her deputy was saying. She could feel a dull ache rising in her left shoulder. Not again. It can’t be. It can’t be.
“Did you hear me, Promise?” interrupted Councilwoman Johnson. “It’s those kids. Those vampires. Those damn—”
Sheriff Flynn raised her hand, shaking off the panicked look she hoped went unnoticed. She took a deep breath, tempering her response. “We don’t know anything yet, Alice. As for your vampires, I don’t think this town has seen a bit of trouble from any of those kids. They just express themselves a little differently than you and I.” She hesitated, trying to hold the words back. The next remark went off like the snap of a mousetrap. “And if dressing in black was a crime, they’d be sharing a cell with you. If you’ll excuse me, I think I better go out and see what’s going on. I’ll make it a point to find you tomorrow after I speak to Luke. Nice seeing you, Alice.”
Mrs. Johnson replied with a carping grunt. Before she could mount her rebuttal, Sheriff Flynn and Hank were in the patrol car heading out of town on Interstate 93 toward the abandoned mental hospital.
“What are you looking at?” asked Sheriff Flynn, giving a quick glance over at Hank.
“If dressing in black was a crime?”
“Yeah, I’m probably gonna regret that.”
Hank paused, trying to get a read on the sheriff’s expression. She actually looked spooked. They had been working together for two years. Two irritating years, according to Hank. Auburn Notch certainly isn’t a hub of criminal activity, just the usual share of traffic tickets and the occasional dead body due to a house fire or accident. Nothing ever happened that would warrant the mayor appointing some out-of-town, big-city detective as sheriff instead of him. He had the town council’s ear and wasn’t bashful about letting them know he was suspicious about her past. Hank was convinced it was only a matter of time before he would uncover the information he needed to replace his boss behind the big desk in the sheriff’s office. For the time being, she was sheriff, and he just had to deal with it.
Promise Flynn might be some out-of-town detective, but she spent many years vacationing in Auburn Notch with her family. One thing she learned back then, there are no secrets in a small New England town. She was very much aware of Hank’s resentment from her first day on the job and decided to let him dig around all he wanted. Just to make it interesting, she also put him in charge of the swim club investigation. She already had a good read on what transpired, but giving the investigation to Hank would flush out his true character. If he’s half the cop he tells people he is, he should have no problem putting the pieces together. It will also test his loyalty. Flynn had a feeling at least two prominent people might be involved with the missing money, and one of them is a close friend of Hanks. If he comes up empty, writing traffic tickets in a small town is going to be the extent of his law enforcement career. Until then, she’ll just have to continue to ignore him tugging at the rug under her boots.
“So why are you tagging along? I said I’d handle it.”
Flynn’s mind was elsewhere. By the time she realized he was talking to her, Hank tried another approach to get an answer.
“Just kids. That’s all,” Hank huffed.
“The candle in the window of the asylum. I chase those damn kids outta there once a week. You didn’t have to come along. It’s probably nothing. Just a candle in the window of an old building.”
Sheriff Flynn looked over at Hank, her lips drawn tightly closed. She shook her head and looked back through the windshield at the dark road ahead. “It’s never just a candle.”