Midnight Crossroad Page 10

Fiji hadn\'t returned from her errands refreshed, though she had felt a mildly pleasant sense of accomplishment. But then, on her return, Shoshanna Whatever had come by. As she trudged along by herself, Fiji\'s face flushed with mixed pride and embarrassment. She\'d showed off in public, but apparently she hadn\'t been observed. She almost wished someone would tell her they\'d seen the detective standing there, because Fiji was really curious about how long the spell had lasted.

She raised her eyes from her plodding feet to look ahead. There was Bobo, striding out, with the smaller form of Manfred right beside him. Maybe Manfred? He was almost directly across the road from her.

She decided Bobo seemed lighter of heart today, though she hadn\'t approached him for any private conversation.

Maybe she could find out from Olivia what had made Bobo so odd and downcast. Olivia must know what had happened.

Olivia always knew.

Despite all Fiji had to occupy her thoughts, soon the walking became more difficult as the ground began to rise. This land had never been settled or farmed, and it had only been grazed by extremely hearty goats. She stumbled more than once as she made her way across the rocky terrain that gradually rose to end abruptly on the cliff overlooking the riverbed. Keeping her eyes on her feet was a pain, but necessary. There were rocks;there were snakes. You had to be alert here.

Fiji saw something slithering off into the shelter of a rock just at that moment, and she snarled at it. She was not a happy camper. She was not any kind of camper at all.

’’You okay?’’ said Bobo, and she looked up. He\'d walked back to check on her. Goddess bless him, he was a kind man.

’’I\'m fine,’’ she lied, feeling the blush on her cheeks. ’’I\'m not a great hiker. I\'m kinda slow. But steady!’’ she added brightly. Briefly, she considered apologizing for intruding on him the other night, but she concluded that she had nothing to apologize for.

’’You don\'t have to be fast,’’ he said, falling into step with her. ’’You got nothing to prove.’’

’’No, I don\'t,’’ she agreed, glad to look at it that way. ’’Not a damn thing.’’

’’Where are you from, originally?’’ Bobo asked. ’’I can\'t believe we\'ve never talked about it. Shared our origin story, as they say.’’ Sharing personal data was not a casual thing in Midnight. As if he feared his question might be too intrusive, he volunteered, ’’I\'m from Arkansas.’’

’’I grew up outside Houston,’’ Fiji said. ’’But my mom\'s folks were originally from this general area. West of Fort Worth. My great-aunt, who was way older than my grandmother, married Wesley Loeffler, who had settled here. They met at a dance, Aunt Mildred told me.’’ She smiled. Quite a few people had thought Mildred Loeffler was cross and crotchety, and a few more had feared her. But Fiji had loved the old woman.

’’And what did Wesley do?’’

’’He ran the five-and-dime, the one that\'s boarded up just north of the filling station. Back then, they all thought that Midnight would grow, that it would outshine Davy.’’

’’What happened to Wesley?’’ Bobo asked.

’’He died pretty young;at least, what we would think of as young. I believe he had complications from a ruptured appendix. He and Great-Aunt Mildred never had any kids, and she never married again.’’

’’Tough,’’ Bobo said. ’’How\'d she make a living?’’

’’She ran the five-and-dime herself until it wasn\'t making any money, and then she sold the building and the business to a Mr. Wilcox. He went under in two years. So she had that money and what she made as a well, as a wise woman, I guess you\'d call it. She sold potions and herbs. And she could cook and was willing to cater a bit, so she was hired for weddings and so on. Aunt Mildred always took care to go to church every single Sunday, though.’’ Fiji grinned. ’’When I was a kid, we\'d come to visit her about every other year. She took a shine to me. Since I\'m the youngest, my sister was pretty mad when Mildred left me the house. If she\'d had an idea the house was worth anything, I think she might have contested Great-Aunt Mildred\'s will. But since I wanted to live in it, not sell it, she\'s left me in peace.’’ Mostly.

’’Your folks ever come to see you?’’ Bobo was frowning. ’’I don\'t remember meeting them.’’

’’They haven\'t come yet,’’ she said briefly. She\'d been in Great-Aunt Mildred\'s house for over three years. ’’What about you?’’

She realized they were covering ground literally, as well as figuratively. This walking business went so much better when she had someone to talk to, a point she made a note to remember.

’’I\'m the oldest of three. I have a brother and sister,’’ he said.

From his unhappy expression, Fiji knew there was a story behind that.

’’And now they\'re . . . ?’’ she prompted.

’’Oh. Amber Jean graduated from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. She\'s a registered nurse, and she\'s married to a pharmaceutical supplier. Howell Three, my brother, he got out of college and got a job with Walmart.’’

’’With Walmart?’’ She tried not to sound surprised. ’’Stocking shelves and so on?’’ She remembered meeting Howell Three briefly, and he hadn\'t seemed the manual labor kind of guy.

Bobo laughed. ’’No, he works at the headquarters. In Bentonville. He\'s engaged to another guy.’’ His smile lingered, as if that had been a good joke on someone else. ’’Amber Jean has two kids, both girls.’’

’’Has she come here?’’

He laughed. ’’Touché. No, and I don\'t expect her to. And Howell Three only came the once, when you met him. Wasn\'t that about seven months ago? I wanted him to meet Aubrey. He thought I was living in the ass end of nowhere.’’

’’What did you tell him?’’

’’That I liked it here. Which I do.’’

’’What do you like about it?’’ She hadn\'t meant to sound coquettish, but she was afraid her words had come out that way. She risked a glance up. Bobo was looking ahead without a hint of self-consciousness, and she breathed a sigh of relief.

’’I like being my own boss,’’ he said. ’’I like the old building and all the pawned stuff that\'s been there forever. I like the random way people come in, bringing me strange things they\'re sure are worth big bucks.’’

’’What do you do if you can\'t tell them one way or another?’’

’’Look the item up online. Call another dealer. Check some of my reference books.’’ There was a laden shelf right by the cash register, and Fiji felt ashamed she\'d never asked what the thick volumes were for.

’’How about you?’’ he asked in return. ’’Do you like selling charms and candles to women? Though,’’ he added hastily, ’’I know you make a lot of them happier.’’

Fiji smiled, though it made her face hurt a little. ’’Bobo, that sounds like you believe I\'m all bells and chimes and New Age spirituality,’’ she said.

Apparently that was exactly what Bobo believed. For a long moment, he didn\'t say a thing.

Taking pity on him, Fiji said, ’’I\'m showing them that going to church and praying on your knees to a male deity isn\'t all there is. There\'s another path, one that will put women in tune with their own spirit and truth.’’

’’And I\'m sure that helps a lot of the ladies,’’ he said quickly. ’’Hey, look, we\'re almost there.’’ He strode forward.

The edge of the cliff was thick with stubborn growth: yucca, small live oaks, firs, cactus, a huge variety of grasses . . . interspersed with rocks ranging in size from babies\' fists to giants\' feet. A haze of tiny yellow blooms lent the scene an almost fairy-tale effect, though the weed that bore them was about a foot tall. The wind tossed the blooms about cheerfully, and the leaves on the trees shivered, some of them loose enough to fly off and flutter through the air.

Fiji thought, Coming here was a good idea. This is really pretty, and healing. Then she went over to the truck to help Madonna, who\'d arrived first and started unloading the truck in an area that wasn\'t too rocky. After getting the baby and his infant seat ensconced on the lowered tailgate, Madonna was pulling the coolers down to the ground. Teacher jumped up to push the coolers and the food forward, and Fiji began putting it on the white plastic folding table that Bobo and Manfred had already arranged. Joe set up the wildly assorted stadium chairs after handing Rasta over to Chuy, who took the little dog on a frantic exploration of the cliff\'s edge. Rasta found an exciting assortment of new smells, so much to sniff and pee on. After an exhausting five minutes, Rasta drank a bowl of water, ate three treats, and curled up for a nap on his special blanket, laid down under the tailgate so the Peke would be in the shade.

Fiji thought the curling-up-and-napping part looked like a good idea, but she hadn\'t brought a special blanket. With an inner sigh and an outward smile, she helped to unpack the food and set it out on the table. She weighted down the napkins and paper plates with rocks, because the wind was making everything dance.

They were perched above the section of the Río Roca Fría that ran east-west, more or less, before it turned north to Davy. Looking to her left, Fiji could see the lazy bend where it recovered its northern goal. Not even a hint of Davy was visible because of a slight rise and fall in the terrain.

In fact, the Midnighters had set up their picnic at the steepest point of the slope;twenty yards in either direction, the ground descended. Scrambling down to the water was much easier there, but the best view was up here, right by the Cold Rock itself. The Roca Fría was a huge white boulder, about the size of a La-Z-Boy recliner. Sadly, there were scrawled messages all over it, some dating from the nineteen sixties.

’’I can see for miles,’’ Olivia said to Fiji. ’’That is, if it weren\'t for my hair!’’ Olivia gathered up a smooth auburn handful with her right hand and pulled out an elastic band to secure it with her left. (Fiji hoped there was a similar band in the pocket of her jacket, but she hadn\'t even thought about it that morning.) Having slicked her hair back into a neat ponytail, Olivia said, ’’I can\'t believe I\'ve never hiked out here before. Great idea!’’

’’Not mine,’’ Bobo said. ’’Fiji\'s.’’

Fiji took a bow as a ragged round of applause went up.

’’Who wants a beer?’’ Teacher called, and there was a general movement over to the ice chest. ’’We got cold water, too, for the wusses.’’

Fiji liked her wine, but she was not a beer drinker. ’’I\'m a wuss,’’ she said with a smile, pulling a bottle of water out of the chest. Suppressing her yearning to sink into her dark green stadium chair, she took a big swallow of water before she strolled eastward, away from the Roca Fría. Fiji picked up a stick as she went, and she began thwacking at weeds in an idle way. A large cricket leaped up, startling her.

Some adventurer I am. I might as well have stayed at home if I\'m going to walk around sulking and hitting things with a stick, Fiji reflected, half smiling at her own foolishness. Fiji had looked forward to the picnic, but now she wasn\'t enjoying it as much as she\'d hoped. She had the uneasy feeling that things were happening in Midnight that were outside her understanding: the abrupt desertion of Bobo by Aubrey, Bobo\'s out-of-character behavior two nights ago, Shoshanna Whitlock\'s questions. But those events should not bother her. They didn\'t have to be different facets of the same incident.

Trying to think positive thoughts, Fiji stopped at a large clump of yucca. She wondered if she could transplant some to her front yard. She crouched to figure out if the plant could be divided. Fiji never liked to leave a hole in a natural landscape. But now that the air currents were gusting down the riverbed and apparently floating up to hit her nose, she was aware, abruptly, that something had died. That something lay very close to where she knelt.

Fiji pushed awkwardly to her feet and stepped closer to the edge. At this point, the undergrowth was significantly thinner than at any other spot. She noted a broken bush, long dead. She looked down. There was only a slight impression of a tire in the dirt;some rain, some wind, had altered it but left its memory intact. So she was fairly sure the bush had been run over.

She held on to a stunted oak while she leaned out to look down the slope to the partially exposed round rocks of the riverbed. At the moment, the river was more of a small stream that burbled its way across the submerged stones, making them even smoother. After a heavy rain, the water speed would be almost frightening, but right now the sight and sound of the river was playful and delightful.

The thing lying close to the streambed was not. Though she was not a fan of CSI shows or detective novels, Fiji knew a decayed corpse when she saw one. And she knew the corpse was human.

Fiji didn\'t know whose name to call first. For a fraction of a second, she was tempted to say nothing at all to anyone, but her sizable conscience would not permit it. Though she\'d never predicted the future and she\'d never been interested in any of the methods used to do so, for this one moment Fiji could see the futures of all the people present changing at this moment, their lives altering as this body toppled all their pursuits in a domino effect, and she was profoundly sorry that hers was the finger pushing the first tile.

’’Olivia!’’ she called. She could not have said why she\'d chosen Olivia, but Fiji was confident she\'d called the person most competent to deal with death. Instinct at work, she thought.

Olivia had a tortilla chip topped with guacamole in her hand, and she popped it into her mouth as she walked. She looked good-naturedly resigned, as if she were assuming that Fiji would not have anything very interesting to show her or tell her. She stopped by Fiji and looked down the slope at what Fiji had discovered.

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