Abie launched herself onto the spit of roof in front of their balcony and carefully let herself down onto the awning over the walkway. She dropped to the ground and immediately sprinted after the shadow in hot pursuit, Kateri right behind her. Marion and Rose followed at a short distance, having chosen to stealthily take the stairs. The four women moved through the silent town, the only light provided by the odd candle in a window, and the desert moon overhead. It was not quite full, though gave fair light.
As the shadow melted down the street, Abie lost track of its movements. She was about to turn around when a choking cry caught her attention. A candle in a window caused dancing, jerking shapes to be cast onto the wall of the house opposite one of the smaller residences. She could immediately see a man caught by his neck, his feet dangling several feet off the ground. She ran to him and caught the kicking legs, hoisting him upward so at least he might stop suffocating. “Kateri!” she shouted. “Help me!”
Her friend appeared and climbed the porch of the house easily. She found a thick black rope and yanked out her Bowie knife to slice it. As she did, the man’s full weight came down on Abie and they tumbled to the dirt, him gasping and croaking for air. Rose and Marion arrived just then, and Rose went into the house to fetch some water for him.
He gratefully pulled the water into his mouth, trying to swallow, though that proved extremely difficult. It was several minutes before he could coherently begin to speak. “Thought was goner,” he shook his head. “Thank you.”
“What happened?” Rose asked.
He tried to speak, but his injuries caused him too much pain, so he demonstrated that he had been smoking on the front stoop.
“Then someone tried to hang you?”
He nodded, then seemed to remember something. He pulled open his shirt, which already hung loose and torn from his shoulders. The word LOITERING was smeared across his chest in what appeared to be blood.
“Same MO,” Kateri and Abie looked at each other. “Deputy Black?”
The man seemed to think so, as he nodded aggressively. “Black. Thought he was rumor. Never seen.”
“Get inside,” Marion said. “If I were you, I wouldn’t leave this house until tomorrow. A man can’t even stand on his own porch for a smoke in this town.”
He shrugged helplessly. “Missus doesn’t like smell.”
“Get the town doctor to check you over tomorrow, make sure you’ve no lasting injuries.” The man pointed at the door to his residence. “Doctor Creeley” was written on a plank.
“You’re Dr. Creeley?”
“This case is stranger and stranger,” Marion shook her head. “I thought maybe there was some discrimination by class or by profession. Chase out the ugly, lower types. But this Deputy Black has just tried to inflict his brand of justice on the town sawbones. Surely you’re important enough to keep around. This Deputy must have absolute devotion to the law as written.”
“Makes sense to me,” Rose agreed. “But is it loitering if you’re on your own porch?”
“Maybe the porch is considered public property, since this is a doctor’s office?”
Dr. Creeley was nodding. “Town pays for upkeep of the front.” His voice was extremely hoarse but getting better.
“So even though you live here, upstairs, right?” Rose started. As Creeley nodded, she finished, “You’re still on public property when you’re downstairs.” He moved his hands helplessly, though in agreement.
“What do we do now?”
“I say we visit the Sheriff. If he won’t tell us where Black is, maybe we can trick him into leading us there.”
“We’re all in agreement that Black is some kind of supernatural entity, correct?” Marion asked. “It’s not just me who’s thoroughly convinced?”
“Look at the rope I cut,” Kateri said, holding it up. Even in the dim candlelight, they could see it deteriorating, turning to dust on the breeze. It stank of pitch and something metallic.
Dr. Creeley stood up. “Still loitering,” he said quietly. “Need to get inside. Also curfew in place. You better go back to hotel.”
“How’d you know where we were staying?”
“I know everyone in town,” he said. “But not you. Must be guests.” There was a dark line encircling his windpipe.
“Stay safe, Dr. Creeley,” Rose smiled at him. “We’ll try to put things right for Dolan Springs.”
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