The Wicked Hour by Alice Blanchard: New Excerpt
By Crime HQOctober 21, 2020
LAST APRIL IN UPSTATE NEW YORK
The man grabbed a towel, wiped his face, and caught sight of his re-flection in the bathroom mirror. He felt odd. Not himself. His smile was strong and dazzling, but his eyes were couched and wary. He had holding-back eyes.
He went downstairs. The house was old. The banister creaked. He could feel his insides ripping apart. Time was slipping away. He felt an urgent need to do something.
In the sunny dining room, he drank his coffee and read the newspaper. He stared at the headline dominating the front page. COP KILLS CROW KILLER! First of all, she wasn’t a cop, she was a detective—but that wouldn’t have the same ring to it, he supposed. It was all about the clicks nowadays.
He fetched another cup of coffee, then read the sports page. He waited with mounting tension, expecting to be disrupted any second. It upset him that she was so silent this morning. He tilted his head and listened for the smallest sound coming from the basement. Nothing.
He found it difficult to stay focused.
The dining room was littered with fast- food containers, scribbled notes on lined yellow pads, and stacks of books. The house was silent, but the stillness had sounds running through it—innocuous buzzes and ticks you could trace to mundane realities, like the creak of a floorboard expanding; the rattling cough of a radiator; the scratch of a tree limb that needed pruning; the flap of a loose utility line against the siding. Eerie sounds that were little more than an irritation.
He paused. He listened. It worried him—this morning’s silence. Shafts of golden light filtered in through the windows. It was going to be a beautiful day.
He put down the paper, went into the living room, picked up the remote, and selected Mozart’s Violin Concerto in D Major. The house filled with beautiful leaps and trills. Piano concertos and operas moved him deeply, but he especially loved the violins. Sometimes he would stand in front of the speakers, rest his hands on the cabinetry, and feel the vibrations of the French horns and kettledrums pounding through the bones of his arms, until the music resonated inside his rib cage. He could feel the composer’s fingers landing on the keyboard and the mellow notes of the violins squeezing through his veins, and he imagined that he was holding Mozart’s or Stravinsky’s bleeding heart in his hands.
Now a tormented cry pierced the loveliness. He released an unsteady breath and cranked the volume on the sound system. He lived on a dead-end street. People rarely ventured out this way, and the house was well- insulated. Nobody could hear the screams unless they drove past the property with their windows rolled down at just the right moment. Very rarely did anyone drive out this way.
He went outside and stood in his pajamas and slippers in the back-yard, waiting for the next outburst. He let his eyes lose their focus until the landscape of overgrown gardens and trees became a blur of color and shadow, like an impressionist painting. He surrendered to a greater reality and listened to the birdsong in the woods, wishing that he could shake this version of events out of his skull. Perhaps a parallel universe was waiting for him around the next heartbeat?
An agonized scream pierced the morning calm.
It made him shudder.
The hairs rose everywhere on his body, and yet he did nothing. He remained motionless and waited for this delicious agony to subside. It always did eventually.
In the lull that followed, he could hear the wind in the trees. He could hear the waxwings and kingbirds deep in the woods. Birds were descendants of the dinosaurs, those massive killing machines that had ruled the earth once, but were nothing more than fluttering flowers now— singing their sweet, sad warrior songs in the treetops where the foxes and raccoons couldn’t get them.
Another piercing scream.
Like a splash of cold water.
He went inside, locked the door, and paced back and forth, burning off excess energy. Today was the day. A smile plied his lips. Prickles raced up his spine. He listened to the combination of sounds coming from upstairs and downstairs, like musical notes with pauses in between.
A squeaky sob.
A stomach-churning wail.
You could compose a concerto in A minor with these kaleidoscopic tones. One from above, the other below. He raised his arms slowly, his right hand holding an invisible bow, the fingers of his left hand pressing against invisible strings. He played to an invisible audience—his muscles moving with precision, greasy strands of hair falling across his face. The violins were grieving. The entire house was weeping. His shoulders fell earthward. Tonight, he would see those cloudy eyes in his dreams. And in the morning, he would wake up with the smell of death in his nose.
SIX MONTHS LATER ON HALLOWEEN NIGHT
October 31. The monsters were out in force tonight. They’d taken over Burning Lake, New York, and Detective Natalie Lockhart was powerless to stop them. She adjusted her 99-cent eye mask and headed through a huge crowd of costumed revelers, making her way toward the town square. The night air was cool and sweet-smelling. Autumn leaves crunched underfoot. The annual ritual was in full swing—a monthlong celebration culminating in Halloween’s Eve, a night full of dancing and drinking and having as much spooky fun as you could fit into one wild twenty-four-hour period.
“Love your costume!” a passing vampire shouted, and Natalie smiled back. She was dressed in her old police uniform. She’d pulled it out of mothballs, and it felt loose on her skinnier frame. All the detectives in the Criminal Investigations Unit had been assigned undercover duties tonight and were required to wear a costume, but Natalie didn’t feel like parading around as a mermaid or a princess or a witch. After spending the past six Halloweens on foot patrol, monitoring the streets as a BLPD officer, she decided to do the same thing this year, minus her service weapon and duty belt. She would be a zombie cop. Before her shift began, Natalie let down her hair, put on a chalky foundation and dark lipstick, added a dribble of fake blood to one cheek, slipped on a blue eye mask and a plastic joke badge, and told anyone who asked, “This is my costume. Like it or lump it.” Her fellow detectives had greeted her announcement with clammy silence. Only Luke had the temerity to ask, “Is that wise, Natalie?”
After thinking about it now, she realized no . . . it wasn’t the wisest decision she’d ever made. But it represented a subliminal desire to be a cop again, not the tabloid-splashed detective who’d shot the Crow Killer point-blank. She wanted to turn back time and walk the beat again, like she had in the good old days before Grace died. Nothing positive had happened to Natalie since last April. She’d lost everything that ever mattered to her.
The downtown district was dazzling tonight, lit by thousands of twinkle lights. The sizeable crowds had no clue that Natalie and her fellow detectives were working undercover, communicating via their department smartphones using secure, encrypted software to disseminate real-time communications. Her phone with its earpiece disguised as white AirPods allowed her to go about undetected, transmitting video feed to the rest of the unit, who were spread out across town, monitoring for trouble spots.
By all estimates, more than a hundred thousand people had descended on this self- proclaimed epicenter for magic and witchcraft. With a little help from the surrounding jurisdictions, a total of two hundred and twenty-five police officers were safeguarding downtown Burning Lake tonight—cops on foot, cops on bikes, cops in squad cars—along with forty plainclothes officers and the BLPD’s seven detectives. So far, the radio chatter had been nonstop—illegal drones were spotted flying above the fair-grounds, drunken tourists had broken through the barriers and climbed on top of vehicles, fights had broken out in multiple locations, shoplifters and pickpockets were having a field day. There were unexpected road closures and arguments over parking spaces. Most of the public lots and garages were filled to capacity, and traffic congestion was heavy in places.
“This is Command,” Lieutenant Luke Pittman’s voice sputtered in her ear.
Natalie tensed as she always did nowadays when she heard Luke speak and adjusted her earpiece. “CIU- seven,” she responded, while the other detectives in the unit chimed in as well. “CIU-four . . . CIU-two . . . received . . .”
“We’ve got a boisterous crowd spilling onto Beulah Miles Road, which is supposed to be closed to pedestrian traffic,” Luke told them from the nerve center of to night’s operation, the dispatch area of the station house with its telecommunications equipment and mapping software. “That street is officially closed, but a huge crowd is coming out of the Witches’ Ball, and I need a couple of warm bodies down there to monitor the situation while we send over a few squad cars to clear it.”
“I’m two blocks away, Lieu,” Detective Augie Vickers volunteered, his take-charge voice booming in her earpiece. “You want me to head over there?”
“Go ahead, Augie.”
“Me also,” Mike Anderson chimed in.
“Go, Mike. The rest of the team continue along your assigned routes,” Luke said.
“You don’t need any more of us?” Natalie asked.
“Negative. Continue along your assigned routes. Out.”
She signed off and grimaced at her phone. “Fuck you, too.” Luke’s cold professionalism wounded her, but it no longer surprised her. After Grace passed away last April, Natalie had done her very best to push him away. She didn’t know why. It was just that Luke’s sympathy, his kindness, only seemed to make things worse, like poking a raw wound and never letting it heal. The more he tried to help, the worse Natalie felt, until finally Luke gave up and complied with her wishes, leaving her to her grief. Now she missed him. Really missed him. They used to meet casually after work just to gripe and shoot the shit. Their friendship had spanned decades, reaching all the way back to their tumultuous childhoods, and Natalie had secretly been in love with him forever. Their mutual alienation was painful, and lately she felt a desire to move closer to Luke, but the misunderstandings had piled up and the cracks in their relationship had become chasms.
Not only was her relationship with Luke on the fritz but Detective Brandon Buckner was avoiding her, too. Brandon and Natalie had once been good buddies, but the tragic events of last April had torn them apart. He recently confessed he didn’t want to hate Natalie—he just couldn’t help himself. Whenever he looked at her, Brandon was reminded of his dead wife. He refused to talk to her outside of their official duties and had taken the night shift in order to avoid working with her. Every time she interacted with Luke or Brandon, she wanted to crawl home and pull the covers over her head.
Now her scalp itched beneath the sweaty hatband, and her feet ached. Natalie had been walking for three hours straight without a break. The air smelled spicy and greasy from the open-air market food carts. There were tacky storefront displays of broomstick- riding witches, swooping bats, and a mock-dungeon with skeletons chained to the walls. People screamed with delight at the Freddy Krueger and Beetlejuice look-alikes. The BLPD was stretched thin to accommodate long lines for various guided tours, museum exhibits, Halloween-themed balls, fortune-teller booths, haunted houses, and graveyard tours. Visitors could buy combination tickets, and comfortable shoes were recommended. For the kids, there were corn mazes, pumpkin- decorating contests, and other family-friendly activities.
Natalie wiped her sweaty hands on her pants. All she wanted was a small square of space to call her own—just for a minute. She hadn’t taken a break in hours. She crossed the town square, past the filled-to-capacity pubs and neon-lit occult shops selling every thing from mojo balls to freakish displays of “once-alive” things fermenting in glass jars. There were sightseeing double-decker buses, street performers, and barkers promoting guided tours. Merchants offered free samples of sugar skulls and sickly sweet candies, as much as you could eat.
A thousand overlapping conversations echoed across the square. Batman and Wonder Woman were extremely popular this year. So were Pennywise the Clown and all the Disney princesses—Ariel, Belle, Rapunzel. She spotted Lord Voldemort holding hands with Miss Dead Universe and Kylo Ren kissing Lizzie Borden, along with the usual contingent of ghosts, witches, ghouls, zombies, and murdered Victorian ladies.
On the next block, a group of teenage girls were huddled together at the curb, laughing and giggling. They’d gone full Goth—four of them were dressed in black, and a fifth wore a bloodstained white dress. The four Goth girls held rubber knives dripping with fake blood, and it took Natalie a moment to realize who they were supposed to be—Daisy, Grace, Bunny, and Lindsey, along with their unwitting victim in white, Willow Lockhart. The girls didn’t notice Natalie, but she recognized them vaguely from Ellie’s school. Chatting away excitedly, they crossed the street and disappeared around the corner.
Natalie felt loose as liquid, no bones to hold her upright. Her heartbeat erratically as she ducked into the nearest bistro. She locked herself in the restroom and stood for a numb moment, shivering with surprise and anger. At home, there was a chart on the refrigerator door delineating the seven stages of grief. First came shock and denial; then came pain and guilt; followed by anger and bargaining; then depression and loneliness; fighting spirit; reconstruction; and finally, acceptance and hope. She couldn’t wait to get to that last fucking stage. She figured she must be hovering over the fourth stage right about now.
Depression and loneliness.
She’d isolated herself from the people who mattered the most.
There was only one person she could turn to in times like this. Natalie took out her phone and called Dr. Russ Swinton, the wise old man of medicine, director of the bustling intensive care unit at Langston Memorial Hospital. A no-nonsense professional in his mid-fifties, saddlebag-tough and emotionless, which made him exactly the kind of person she needed right now. Twenty-one years ago, Russ had examined Natalie after she’d been attacked in the woods. Now he was helping her through one of the most difficult periods of her life.
After five rings, he picked up. “Yes?” he said in a crisp, intimidating tone. There were muffled hospital sounds in the background.
“Sorry to bother you, I know it’s late . . .”
“Natalie, what’s up?”
“You said I should call if I experienced any unusual symptoms . . .”
“Yes— why? What’s going on?”
What’s up? What’s up? She suddenly wasn’t sure how to answer that complicated question. Her mind filled with so many thoughts, it went blank. “My heart is pounding. Feels like it’s skipping beats.”
“Where are you?”
“Town Square. In Maurice’s Bistro. I’m on duty tonight. Undercover.”
“What triggered the palpitations?”
“I saw a group of teenage girls dressed up for Halloween as Grace and Daisy and Bunny, you know, carrying bloody knives . . . the whole bit.”
“I see.” He paused. “That must’ve been very jarring.”
Six months ago, Natalie’s older sister, Grace, had confessed to killing two people: first, her best friend, Daisy Buckner, who’d been threatening to reveal a horrifying secret they shared. When Grace and Daisy were teenagers, they formed a coven and killed Natalie’s other sister, Willow, stabbing her twenty-seven times. Willow’s boyfriend at the time, Justin Fowler, had gone to prison for it. And then last April, shortly after Grace had confessed these terrible things to Natalie, she’d taken her own life.
And so yes, it was rather jarring to see five teenage girls dressed up for Halloween like two of Natalie’s beloved sisters, one of whom had killed the other twenty years ago.
“Are you experiencing any other symptoms, Natalie?”
“Shortness of breath.” She swallowed a sob. “Do you think it could have something to do with the reduced dosage?” For a while, she’d been on antidepressants, and Dr. Swinton was helping her taper off them.
“It sounds to me like a panic attack. I can’t be sure over the phone. The ER’s a zoo right now, but if you can make it down here, I’ll squeeze you in.”
“No, that’s okay,” she backtracked, staring at her reflection in the mirror. She had stopped panting. Her heart rate was returning to normal, although her face was slick with sweat. She cleared her throat and said, “I’m feeling better now.” She placed two fingers over the pulse point on her throat. “It helps to talk.”
“Yeah, I’m feeling much better. Thanks, Doc.”
“No problem. Listen. Call Sofia in the morning and set up an appointment for this week, whenever you can make it in. I’d like to run a few tests. I think we should decrease the dosage by twenty- five milligrams every two weeks, instead of fifty milligrams like we’ve been doing.”
“Okay,” she said, feeling embarrassed because she shouldn’t have panicked like that. “I’ll call Sofia tomorrow.”
“And Natalie, if you experience any other symptoms tonight, drop everything and get over to the ER. I’m leaving shortly, but Dr. Evander will be taking over, and I’ll fill him in on the situation. Okay?”
“Promise. Thanks again.” She hung up.
Natalie splashed cold water on her face, straightened her uniform, and headed out again, turning west on Eastham Street, where the carnival atmosphere was ramped to eleven—drunks stumbling out of the bars, music blasting from every venue.
She checked her watch. According to the duty roster, her next assignment was to join the team monitoring the large gathering on Abby’s Hex Peninsula, where the mannequins were scheduled to burn at midnight. Abby’s Hex was the last place in the world Natalie wanted to be. She could feel another panic attack coming on—that heart-skipping arrhythmia brought on by stress. Where were her boundaries lately? She used to have boundaries. Nowadays it was impossible to define the edges of her grief.
She turned west onto Sarah Hutchins Drive, then took a shortcut toward the rutted parking lot behind the Barkin’ Dawg, where the CIU no longer had their weekly meetups. The Howard Street lot was one of Burning Lake’s best-kept secrets, since it provided the fastest way out of downtown during the hectic month of October, bypassing the worst of the traffic. Only the locals knew about it.
There was a flyer stuck under the windshield wiper of her smoke-gray Honda Pilot— a discount coupon for the Midnight Graves Tour. She crumpled it up and tossed it in back, then got in and rested her head against the steering wheel. She swam in a kind of waking dream, not fully pre sent. The grief was always there like a clinging mist.
She powered down her window and let the night air cool her face. Like her father, Joey, used to say, “It’s not the burden that weighs you down—it’s how you carry it.”
Five minutes later, she’d left downtown behind and was heading north into the woods. The northern quadrant of Burning Lake consisted mostly of conservancy lands and wealthy neighborhoods where the estates were passed down from generation to generation, and the drive-ways snaked elegantly into the woods. She would take Route 151 east toward the lake.
Now her radio crackled to life. “Calling all available units . . .”
Natalie scooped up the mike and responded, “This is CIU-seven.”
“There’s been a report of a disturbance on Hollins Drive,” Dispatch said. “Private residence. A group of uninvited guests are demanding to be let into the party.”
“I’m near that location now. ETA three minutes. What’s the address, Dennis?”
“Seventy- three Hollins.”
She knew who lived there. Hunter Rose, the founder of Rose Security Software. “Responding to the call,” she said and dunked the mike back in its cradle on the dash. She was grateful for the diversion. Abby’s Hex would have to wait.
She took the covered bridge across Swift Run Creek, then drove past turn-of-the-century homes nestled in old pine groves. There were ten historic covered bridges in Burning Lake, and at least half of them were in desperate need of repair. The town council recently insisted the bridges were safe, despite the large cracks in the concrete abutments. The Swift Run Creek covered bridge was in the worst shape of all, having been damaged in last year’s spring flood. It was built in 1799, the year of President George Washington’s death, and remained an iconic feature in the town’s brochure to commemorate New York State’s 1799 declaration to end slavery. Now the old covered bridge was propped up with a bunch of rickety-looking scaffolding.
Natalie drove through the woods for another mile or so before pull-ing up in front of 73 Hollins Drive. She could hear loud rock music coming from inside the house. Thirty-three-year-old Hunter Rose lived in this nineteenth-century mansion on twenty acres of rugged wilderness. He was one of Burning Lake’s most prominent citizens, as well as being an old flame of Natalie’s. Not that it mattered. Their fling only lasted a summer after her sophomore year in college—they’d fucked everywhere inside that house—but she hadn’t spoken to him in ages. They traveled in different circles now, and she remembered him being kind of a douche. He was very smart and good-looking, and so self-aware that he readily admitted he’d hurt people in his past, specifically women who’d fallen in love with him. He confessed to Natalie that he didn’t think much of it because he hadn’t promised them anything. She found his candor repugnant, but also refreshing, since most people would’ve gone to great lengths to hide their emotional cruelty, but Natalie and Hunter also shared a deeper history that felt like a soft bruised wound between them, and that was probably the main reason she’d broken up with him. Because he couldn’t let go of the past.
Overhead, a few passing clouds briefly obscured the three-quarter moon. The sweeping gravel driveway was full of parked cars—BMWs, Bentleys, Lexuses—and there were more high-end vehicles parked on the roadside, where several valets were smoking cigarettes. Natalie spotted Brandon’s black Jeep Cherokee parked at the base of the driveway and wondered what he was doing there. Two detectives on the busiest night of the year was a little excessive for a response to a relatively minor call. Brandon and two private security guards in blue jackets were busy corral-ling a dozen rowdy costumed revelers on the lawn’s sloping incline.
Natalie got out. The rambling stone mansion was huge and creepy-looking, a Romanesque Revival folly constructed in the late 1800s by a Boston steel magnate, who had turned it into a luxury resort. In the 1920s, it became a sanitorium for tuberculosis patients. In 1935, it was abandoned and left neglected until the mid-1980s, when Hunter’s father bought it and restored it to its former glory. Hunter and his brother had grown up there, which was something Natalie still couldn’t imagine.
The clouds blew away and the moon shone down on the immaculate lawn. Festive hanging paper lanterns swayed in the mild breeze. The Oc-tober air smelled of pine sap. As Natalie approached the group, Michael Myers started texting frantically, Spider-Man threw up on the grass, Esmeralda comforted a wilted-looking Ariel, and Chucky the Doll guzzled booze out of a paper bag. They were all complaining loudly, shouting questions at Brandon and not listening to his answers.
“What’s going on?” she asked Brandon.
“They weren’t invited. They’re creating a ruckus. Mr. Rose doesn’t want to press charges. He just wants them off his property.”
Mr. Rose. Brandon always buckled to authority.
Floodlights with motion sensors lit the property, and there were at least three outdoor security cameras she could spot. Now Chucky the Doll and Michael Myers were hollering obscenities at each other. Natalie introduced herself and said, “What seems to be the problem here, gentlemen?”
“My girlfriend’s in there!” Chucky the Doll shouted, whipping off his mask. Natalie recognized Cody Dugway, the owner of a popular tattoo parlor in town called Cody’s Ink. A good businessman. Not a known trouble-maker. “She called about twenty minutes ago and said to come over, and now these idiots won’t let us in.”
“What’s her name?” Natalie asked.
“Isabel Miller. They won’t let us in.”
“It’s a private party,” Brandon told Cody firmly.
“But my girlfriend’s in there,” he said stubbornly. “I’m not going anywhere without Isabel.”
Just then, a twentysomething woman in a short black dress came hurrying out of the house, clutching her handbag and shoes. She looked around blearily. “Cody?”
“Isabel!” Cody shouted, waving his arms.
“Hi, babe!” She waved back.
She was halfway down the stone path by the time Natalie caught up with her.
“Wait a second. Are you okay?” She took hold of Isabel’s arm.
“Fine. S’nothing.” Isabel tried to wriggle free. “Leggo. Wanna go home.” She hurried down the sloping yard toward the road, where her boyfriend and his friends were waiting for her. A drunken cheer went up.
Natalie looked over at Brandon, who shrugged indifferently from the roadside, his face a blank in the moonlight.
Cody swept Isabel up in his arms and spun her around. Then the uninvited guests got back in their cars and the caravan pulled away.
Natalie turned toward the house, where the party continued unabated. Then she headed down the incline toward Brandon. “Crazy night, huh?”
He opened the door to his Jeep and got in.
“Hey, wait,” she said.
His face was grim and rigid as hardened plaster. “What?” he said through the rolled-down window.
Her disappointment was so profound that her mind felt stuck. She leaned against his door and said, “I need something from you, Brandon.”
“Yeah, what’s that?”
“A little sympathy.”
An enormous roar went up inside the house, accompanied by laughter. “How long are you going to keep avoiding me?” she asked. “Why can’t we talk about this? When are we going to move past it and be friends again? I miss you.”
He looked away, and she could see a tear glimmering in the corner of one eye.
“When do you plan on forgiving me, you stubborn asshole?”
He turned to her with brutal honesty. “Do you know what I did yesterday, Natalie? I stood inside my house . . . in the kitchen, on the spot where it happened . . . and I tried to picture how it went down that day. And I swear to God, I could sense Daisy’s presence . . . and it fucking killed me . . . the utter waste of it all. And I thought, How could this have happened? Why didn’t we see it coming? How could I have been so fucking blind?”
Every word felt like the jab of an ice pick.
“And by we—you mean me?” she said pointedly. “I should’ve seen it coming? I should’ve known?”
He rubbed his eyes with his index finger and thumb, then heaved a tired sigh. “This isn’t about you, Natalie. You’ve apologized enough. I’m not looking for any more apologies.”
“Then what do you want?” she cried. “How am I supposed to fix this?”
He shook his head sadly. “Not everything can be fixed.” He started the engine.
She wanted to say, “Fuck you.” She wanted to say, “I understand.” Instead she stood there feeling clammy and humiliated, and watched him go.
Natalie had never missed the burning of the mannequins in her life. But tonight, she didn’t want to be there. She didn’t want to see it. The spectacle. The scary buzz of the crowd. The raging bonfire lighting the faces of those closest to the pyre. The mannequins’ skirts dancing in the flames, accompanied by raucous, drunken laughter.
Burn the witches.
The revelers were out for blood tonight. Everyone squeezed a little closer, straining to see over the heads of those in front of them. See what exactly? The sad spectacle of three female mannequins on fire. What if that was Grace up there in the straw hat and colonial dress? What if it was Daisy or Bunny or Lindsey?
Burn the witches.
Natalie felt a growing tightness in her chest, like fingers wrapping around her heart. She didn’t want to revisit the place where her niece had been harmed by her so-called friends. She didn’t want to stand on the spot where Abigail, Sarah, and Victoriana had been falsely accused of witchcraft more than three hundred years ago and sentenced to death for their so-called sins. She wondered what had happened to the people of Burning Lake after 1712. How did the relatives of the accused handle it? How did they continue to live side by side with the judges who’d condemned their loved ones to death?
A burst of maniacal laughter snapped her out of her reverie. Natalie had been monitoring the crowd for almost an hour now, listening to the gleeful chatter of people celebrating other people’s pain. She hated the concentration of bodies— too close, too warm, too loud. An ambulance was stationed at the entrance of the peninsula, just in case, and a handful of paramedics roamed the crowds, on the lookout for injuries or accidents. Sometimes people fainted or got too close to the flames. Sometimes they fell down and twisted an ankle. Every year around this time, the hospital emergency room would be clogged with visitors suffering from minor burns, cuts, alcohol poisoning, overdoses, nonlethal car accidents, food poisoning, sprains, and other complaints. During the entire month of October, Burning Lake bled Halloween through its pores.
A great cheer went up. The ceremony was over. An unsettled feel-ing tickled the back of Natalie’s throat. She could sense the shift before it happened— hundreds of people turning around at once and heading back to town. She checked her watch. One o’clock. Her shift was over, but tonight’s festivities would continue until dawn.
For the most part, the crowd was orderly and friendly, spontaneous conversations cropping up all around her as everyone made their way through the wooded peninsula back to their cars. These people weren’t so bad. They were here to be entertained. They weren’t thinking about the past. They were probably carrying around their own pain and needed a break from their routine everyday lives. Natalie straightened her shoulders, and a flock of birds exploded from the treetops as if she’d shaken them off.
Fifteen minutes later, she entered the police station. The dispatcher’s phones were ringing off the hook. Hardly anyone was around tonight, except for the officers in charge of the jail and the booking process. There were plenty of drunks in the holding tanks. She could hear them cater-wauling as she headed for the elevator bank.
Natalie sorted through her messages as she took an elevator to the third floor, which was overheated and stuffy. The hallway was dark, with stray slants of office light spilling out of open doorways. She dropped her message slips on her desk and removed the cheap eye mask. The unit was quiet tonight. The guys had either gone home or were still out in the field, depending on what shift they’d pulled. She sipped her coffee, took a seat at her desk, and started typing up her reports. After a few minutes, she heard Luke’s mellow, confident voice echoing down the hallway. She wiped the fake blood off her cheek, tucked her hair behind her ears, removed the joke badge, and stood up. She followed the sound of his voice down the hallway to his office.
The door was open, a triangle of yellow light slashing across the worn carpet. Luke was on his phone. He glanced up and nodded. “Yeah, okay,” he said into the receiver.
She crossed her arms and waited.
“Will do, Chief.” He hung up and tossed the newspaper in the trash. “What can I do for you, Natalie?” he said politely. The new Luke. Stiff and formal. The guy she didn’t like so much. Who created this monster? Oh, right. She did.
She took a seat and said, “So how was your day?”
He arched an eyebrow. “You want all the gory details?”
“Sure.” She smiled. “Why not?”
“Tonight was a clusterfuck.”
“Yeah, it was total chaos out there,” she said vaguely, her mood toggling between hope and frustration that maybe the walls would tumble down, and they could be their old selves again. She missed their private jokes, traded smirks, and deep commiseration that came from their shared experience of the fucked-up-ness of humankind on this side of the law-enforcement line. When you stopped a guy for a broken taillight who had a severed deer’s head bleeding all over the seat beside him, then you understood what it was—deep in your bones—to be a cop.
“Want one?” He offered her a packet of roasted sunflower seeds. He kept dozens in his desk drawer, along with protein bars and packets of granola.
“Actually, it was pretty civil compared to last year,” he admitted, and she noticed the tiredness in his voice, the tiny etchings around his eyes. “Forty-two arrests, not including DUIs and traffic stops. Lots of alcohol-related transgressions, mostly bar fights, a few people selling souvenirs without a license, some property damage and random gunfire . . . in other words, not bad for this time of year.”
“And now it’s over.”
“Almost.” He smiled uneasily.
She didn’t know where to put her hands. She crossed her arms and uncrossed them, while an awkward silence filled the room. She raised her chin. There was an unmistakable tension between them.
Tomorrow, November 1, the tourists would be heading home en masse. Order would be restored. The cleanup would begin. Brochures would litter the streets and dumpsters would overflow. Local merchants would close up shop for a few days and count their profits, and everyone would agree—this had to be the most successful Halloween ever. They said that every year. Except for a few hungover stragglers, peace and quiet would descend and the town of Burning Lake would return to normal again.
Except for Natalie, things would never be normal again.
Luke crumpled the packet of sunflower seeds and tossed it in the trash. “Anything else?” he asked. It was completely quiet up here. More desolate than on the first floor.
She cocked an eyebrow. “Anything else? Hmm.”
He looked at her sideways. “What?”
“Yeah, okay, I’ve got a question for you. How long does it take to get over it?”
His eyes narrowed.
“Loss. Grief. How long does it take? When am I going to feel like a regular person again?”
He stared at her with a mixture of uncertainty and compassion. “I advised you months ago to get into grief counseling, Natalie . . .”
“I know, but I’m asking you. Personally. As a friend. All I feel is death all around me. Everything’s frozen in time, like that kingdom in the fairy tale where everybody is sound asleep. Frozen. For years. Like ice sculptures. It’s like . . . I reach out to touch things, but they’re brittle. They break apart in my hands. Nothing moves forward—ever. Everything stagnates. Day after day. It’s like I’m trapped inside a terrarium with my hands pressed against the sides, watching my own exhalations fog up the glass. What I mean is . . . tonight, for example, I was surrounded by people, and yet I’ve never felt so alone. And I didn’t think . . . I mean, we’ve been friends forever.”
“ We’re still friends,” he said, looking down at his hands.
“Oh really? This is friendship? This professional, tiptoey politeness?”
He looked at her with such careful eyes, her stomach jumped. “I’m your boss. You work for me. And you know what, Natalie? You were right to create a distance between us. Your instincts were correct.”
Fear flickered in her heart. Her lips parted, but she said nothing.
“We should keep our focus on the job, where it belongs. Don’t you think?”
“Okay, so I pushed you away. I’m sorry. Can’t we get back to the way it was?”
He rubbed his face and said tiredly, “Natalie.”
“What?” she said, equally exasperated.
He crossed his arms. “You need to learn to trust yourself.”
“What do you mean by that? Trust myself?”
“You know what I mean,” he said firmly, forcing her to figure it out. Her ears grew hot. She thought about it for a moment. “Okay. It’s true, I guess, that I don’t trust myself anymore. I don’t trust my judgment. Because, I mean, how could Grace have fooled me all those years? Why didn’t I suspect something?”
He nodded patiently. “But that’s not the whole truth. We all slip up sometimes. You have good instincts, Natalie. You’re an excellent detective. You can trust that.”
“Right. Got it.”
“Not everyone catches everything. Not every case gets solved. That’s just life.”
She pretended to suck it up, even though she felt a rock-hard disappointment in her gut. She should’ve known there was something wrong with Grace.
“And besides,” he said, “you solved one of the biggest cases upstate New York has ever seen.”
“Oh God. I’m so sick of hearing about the Crow Killer, Luke.”
“I’m just saying . . .”
“Saying what? Win some, lose some?”
He looked away, his expression hardening.
Natalie wanted to cry.
She got up to leave, and it was as if he saw her vulnerability, and it made him want to protect her, because he leaned forward and said, “Natalie?”
She stood motionless. The room grew still.
“If Brandon has a beef with you, that’s his problem. If he can’t act like a mature, responsible adult and work things out, then let it go. Ignore him.”
She nodded, tears tremoring in the corners of her eyes.
“My door is always open. And no matter what . . . I’ve got your back.”
“I hope so.”
“Don’t hope. You can count on it.”
“Thanks.” She walked swiftly away from him.
Copyright © 2020 by Alice Blanchard
About The Wicked Hour by Alice Blanchard:
The day after Burning Lake’s notorious, debauched Halloween celebration, Detective Natalie Lockhart uncovers a heartbreaking scene—a young woman, dead and lying in a dumpster. There’s no clue to who she is, save for a mystifying tattoo on her arm, and a callus underneath her chin. She’s not from around here. No one knows who she is.
As Natalie retraces the young woman’s steps leading up to her death, she uncovers a deeper, darker horror—a string of murders and disappearances, seemingly unconnected, that may have ties to each other—and explain the abrupt disappearance of her best friend years ago.
As she digs deeper within the mind of the hunter, Natalie finds a darkness she could never have imagined. And as she draws closer to the truth, the killer is weaving a trap for her that may prove inescapable.