Laced With Magic: Chapter 2
The first time I observed a town hall meeting, I was on the outside looking in.
It was one of those three-dog December nights they specialized in up here in northern Vermont and I'd ended up spending part of it hidden behind a frozen azalea bush, peering through the window at the woman I would spend the rest of my life with.
Not that I knew it then. That night the only thing I knew for sure was that freezing my ass off was a small price to pay to watch her smile.
Yeah, go ahead. Laugh. If anybody had told me I would fall in love at first sight with a tall skinny blonde who knitted for a living and moonlighted as mayor of a small Vermont town, I would have laughed too.
I was a burned-out detective, a hard case when it came to love or anything close to it. I had been looking to put as much distance between myself and my old life as I could and when the opportunity to be the interim chief of police in a nowhere town presented itself, I jumped on it.
I wanted to disappear. I wanted to stop feeling. I wanted to stop thinking about the life I'd lost.
Sugar Maple sounded like the perfect place to do it: a Norman Rockwell painting come to life, a Christmas card of a town that boasted a zero crime rate and a healthy tourist economy based on nothing more than great-looking people and proximity to some pretty serious skiing. A place filled with happy people living happy lives. A place where nothing bad ever happened.
I had a lot to learn.
I've been here a few months now and I'm still not sure I've managed to wrap my head around what really goes on here. Retired vampires. Gorgeous troll librarians. Hair stylist witches. And a girlfriend who happens to be a sorceress-in-training locked in mortal combat with a banished fae queen.
See what I mean? It takes some getting used to.
This was my third monthly town hall meeting as temporary chief of police. Since Sugar Maple didn't register on the state crime meter, my presence was more ceremonial than anything else. I had signed on for six months or however long it took me to investigate my old friend Suzanne's drowning death in Snow Lake. The investigation had been completed quickly but by then I had already fallen in love with Chloe and leaving Sugar Maple was the last thing on my mind.
Okay, so maybe it wasn't the last thing on my mind. I wouldn't have minded leaving the magic behind for a few days. I'm not sure humans are cut out for a steady diet of vampires, werewolves, and things that go bump in the night. Lately normal has been sounding pretty good to me and I'd been trying to convince Chloe to let me schedule a getaway weekend for us but she kept putting me off. Not even a day trip down to Boston and back. She claimed the knit shop as her excuse and I couldn't argue that her every waking hour was claimed by Sticks & Strings.
Still, being the only resident human in town wasn't the easiest gig and I'd found myself thinking a lot about the world beyond the township limits. A world I wanted to share with Chloe. I knew she was bound to Sugar Maple by a destiny I couldn't pretend to totally understand but even cons got time off for good behavior.
It wasn't like she was trapped here by some kind of curse or anything. Hell, she'd put in a few semesters at B.U. not that long ago. My world wasn't totally unfamiliar to her.
I zoned out during the lilacs versus hydrangea debate and tried hard not to scratch where my sweater itched. Chloe wisely tabled a discussion on Christmas displays until after Labor Day and then yielded the floor to an insistent Midge Stallworth who demanded to know why, with all the magick flying around town, nobody had managed to repair the Dangerous Curve Ahead sign near her family's funeral home.
"I don't mind new business," she said, her eyes twinkling as she looked straight at me, "but I'd rather get it my way, if you know what I mean."
The crowd burst into laughter and I joined in. I still had trouble with vampire humor and for a second I found myself wondering what in hell I thought I was doing, trying to build a new life in a place like this. Chloe was half-human and even she had trouble figuring out where she belonged in a magick town. What chance did I have?
But we were on the same wave length. She must have known we needed to put some space between us and all of those prying unseen watchers. Getting away from everyone for the afternoon, even if it was only as far as the waterfall, had been a good thing.
A damn good thing.
Chloe naked in the pale spring sunlight. The sounds she made when I spread her legs and found her with my mouth. Her wicked good hands on my body, turning me harder than the rock beneath us.
If you had asked me this afternoon if we had a future, I would have said hell yes. The second she put on the blindfold, the barriers between us vanished. Sugar Maple and all its history vanished. Sure it was erotic as hell but there had been more going on there than getting off on each other. She had been more purely human in my arms than she'd ever been before and I liked it.
"How far to Sugar Maple?" I asked the gas station attendant as I pushed two twenties across the counter toward him. I had been on the road since noon and it was now after dark. Either I was getting close or the next stop would be Canada.
He ignored the money and gestured toward the tote slung across my body. "Your bag's been ringing since you pulled in. Aren't you going to answer it? Somebody wants to talk to you wicked bad."
Not until I heard the right ring tone. "I guess my voice mail is full. So how far am I from Sugar Maple?"
"Four, five miles," he said, pushing two quarters change in my direction, "but I wouldn't go there tonight if I was you. Not unless you got a place to stay."
"They have an Inn," I said. "I saw it in the guidebook." It was mud season. Nobody sane went to Vermont during mud season. Even a 5 star inn would have vacancies.
"They don't rent rooms."
"An Inn that doesn't rent rooms?" And they said I was crazy. . .
"Eat at the restaurant then go back where you came from. That's how they like it up that way." His brow furrowed like a worried Shar Pei as he pointedly raised his voice over the bleat of my cell. "I'd grab myself a room at Motel Six. Save Sugar Maple for the morning."
Good, solid, well-meaning advice that I was going to ignore. I didn't care where I slept. I'd sleep in the car if I had to. I didn't care what I ate or if I ate at all. The only thing I cared about was finding my ex-husband before it was too late.
The phone went silent for a moment then sprang to life again. But this time—
I ripped the phone from my bag and flipped it open. "Steffie! Talk to me, honey! It's Mommy. Please talk to me—"
The line went dead.
I didn't mean to scream but her name tore from my throat, from my gut. The gas station attendant, who clearly through I was a runaway mental patient, took three steps back.
"It's the mountains," he said slowly. "Busts up the signal. She'll call back."
"It's not the mountains," I said, struggling to rein in my emotions. "It's me. It's . . . everything."
I mean, what would he think if I told him that call was from my dead daughter? He would probably lock himself in his storeroom and call the cops.
That was Steffie on the line. I had no doubt. Two calls. One last week, one a few moments ago. Both signaled by the same ring tone: Steffie's lullaby. Our secret song, we called it. A tune we had made up together, a silly mix of nonsense words and sounds that made us both giggle. Not even her father had ever known about it. But somehow, some way, it had ended up as a ring tone.
Mommy . . . Mommy . . . can you hear me . . .
"Lady?" The poor cashier was looking at me like he was afraid I'd pull a gun on him. "Is something wrong? No offense but you look like you haven't eaten in awhile. We've got some sandwiches in the vending machine."
I stared at him blankly then started to laugh, a crazy out-of-control laugh that made my whole body shake. Had I eaten today? I hadn't a clue. I wasn't sure I ate yesterday or the day before. Or slept for that matter. He was looking at me with such compassion mixed with curiosity that I almost spilled my whole story onto the ground between us but something—my last shred of sanity maybe—held me back.
Last week I'd told my friend Angela from work everything and the first thing she did was stage an intervention designed to force me into some kind of mental hospital where they would help me deal with my grief.
Grief. What a small nothing of a word to describe the ripping, clawing pain I had felt every day since Steffie died.
They said I was grieving too hard, mourning too long, that it was time to suck it up and get on with it. They were right. I knew they were right. I'd been trying to pull myself back from the edge and had actually managed to make some progress when I started having the dreams and then the visions and now the phone calls from Steffie and I was in deeper than ever.
The attendant tossed a Twix in my direction. "On the house."
I smiled at him and pocketed the candy bar. Sometimes it was easier to say thanks and get on with it. At least one of us would be happy.
"Just keep driving along the state road," he said as I climbed back behind the wheel. "Check in at the motel. Sugar Maple'll be there in the morning."
I drove right on past.
Welcome to Sugar Maple – Est. 1692
We had more than four hundred seventeen people in our high school graduating class. The thought of my ex-husband in a place like this was baffling but Fran said he'd been here almost six months now, working as interim chief of police. Hard to imagine a big city cop setting up shop in a town with only one traffic light but then neither of us had ended up where we'd expected.
We had expected to grow old together. At least in the beginning, before life got the better of us, we'd believed that we were destined to spend our golden years scoping out the early bird specials between visits from our kids and grandkids.
I didn't have an address but it shouldn't be too hard to find the police station in a town this size. Except that I couldn't find it. I found everything else: a yarn shop, a bagel place, a bank, a library, but no police station. It wasn't even eight o'clock and the town was shut down tight.
I'm not sure why but the place gave me the creeps. There was something too Stepford about it for my taste. I would have paid somebody to litter. It was hard to imagine real live messy human beings living there. The town was too pretty, too perfect, too empty. I know it sounds crazy, but I was starting to understand how a deer felt during hunting season. Just because you couldn't see the hunters didn't mean they weren't there.
The gas station attendant had been right. They didn't exactly roll out the welcome mat for visitors after dark. Suddenly I wanted to get back on the road as fast as possible, find that Motel 6, and wait for the goosebumps on the back of my neck to go down.
I made a U-turn on Osborne and aimed the car toward the township line and had managed to get about a half-mile away when my cell phone on the seat next to me lit up and Steffie's song filled the cabin of the rental car.
I turned and grabbed for the phone at the same instant a deer leaped directly into the path of my rental car.
All I could do was hit the brakes and pray.