Midnight Crossroad Page 11

There was a long moment of breathless silence. The wind wreaked havoc with Fiji\'s curls, while Olivia\'s ponytail danced around.

’’F*king hell,’’ Olivia said. Then, after another moment\'s contemplation of the pathetic and grisly sight, she said, ’’Very f**king hell.’’

’’Right.’’

’’I better go down and look closer,’’ Olivia said.

’’Why?’’

’’Sheer curiosity.’’ Olivia went effortlessly down the slope, then bent over the body for a few long moments. She straightened, shook her head in a dissatisfied way, and came back up to Fiji in a rush, as if she were getting her cardio in.

’’There\'s a hole in her sternum,’’ Olivia said. ’’I don\'t know if it\'s a bullet hole or not.’’

Fiji had fished her cell phone from her jacket pocket, and for the first time in her life she punched in 911.

’’What\'s your emergency?’’ asked a brisk voice.

’’I guess this isn\'t really an emergency, since it\'s clearly been dead quite a while, but we just found a body,’’ Fiji said steadily.

’’Where are you? Have you checked for signs of life?’’

’’Well, we\'re at the big boulder on the Río Roca Fría, having a picnic,’’ Fiji said. ’’Though one of us did go down to check, this body has been here for a while. It\'s’’ a nightmare, a woman, a pile of bone and gristle ’’decomposed.’’

’’You\'re sure it was a human being? Not a deer or horse?’’ The dispatcher sounded skeptical. It was like she didn\'t want there to be any problem.

’’Not unless deer and horses have started wearing clothes,’’ Fiji said. ’’We\'ll wait here until someone comes.’’ She hung up.

’’Something wrong, Feej?’’ Bobo was walking toward her.

That put some starch in her legs. She pulled away from Olivia and stood between Bobo and the cliff. ’’No,’’ she said. ’’No, you don\'t come over here.’’ She picked out the nearest person. ’’Joe, don\'t let anyone come over here,’’ she called.

Simultaneously, Olivia said, ’’There\'s a body.’’

Joe, looking bewildered, nonetheless heaved himself out of his stadium chair and went over to Bobo. He said, ’’Hey, man, let\'s just stay here,’’ as he took Bobo\'s arm. Bobo didn\'t struggle, and he didn\'t protest. His eyes met Fiji\'s, and she knew he was reading the pity in her face. Bobo yanked free of Joe\'s grip and inexplicably threw his beer bottle as hard as he could. Fiji watched the arc of white foam marking its trajectory. The bottle hit the ground and broke, and Bobo covered his face with his hands.

After all, there was only one person missing from the county: Aubrey Hamilton.

10

You knew her, I guess,’’ Manfred said. He\'d come to stand by Fiji when Olivia had walked away to explain to everyone what they\'d just discovered. ’’I\'ve only heard her name mentioned.’’

Together, he and Fiji looked down the gentle slope at the wizened, almost skeletonized, body. It was not white and clean like a laboratory skeleton;far from it. There were disgusting wads of hair around the skull, and tendons stretched like dead vines around the bigger bones. The smaller ones were scattered, some right around the corpse. Flying, walking, all the little predators of the area had come to visit Aubrey Hamilton\'s remains. Her shoes were still there, which seemed pathetic. They were had been bright Zoot Sports running shoes. When Aubrey had told Fiji how much they cost, Fiji (who bought her shoes at Payless) had almost choked.

’’I did know her.’’ Fiji sighed heavily. ’’She started dating Bobo . . . maybe a little over a year ago, and she moved in about five months after that. More or less. Two months ago, she just vanished. Bobo came back from an overnight trip to Dallas, and she was gone.’’ Fiji looked around for Bobo. He was sitting in the cab of Teacher\'s truck, leaning forward, his head resting on the dashboard. He was not crying. But what was he thinking? She could not guess.

’’She just left?’’ Manfred said. ’’Clothes and all?’’

’’No \'and all,\'’’ Fiji said. ’’She\'d left some stuff in the washing machine. She only took the clothes on her back . . .’’ She looked down the slope and she shuddered. ’’And the shoes on her feet.’’

’’Did Bobo report it?’’

’’Report what? That his girlfriend had left him? They would have laughed. But he did call after a week, because it was just weird that her stuff was there. She didn\'t have a car, as far as we knew, but all her clothes and her hair straightener and her razor and even her toothbrush . . . who leaves stuff like that behind? The sheriff sent a deputy over to ask a few questions. He got her phone number and her parents\' information. But with no signs of a struggle and no phone calls or any communication, I guess there really wasn\'t anything to go on.’’

’’I see what you mean. Did Bobo ever hear from her?’’

Fiji said, ’’I have to sit down,’’ and they dragged a couple of the chairs to a spot in the shade. When she was slumped back into the chair, grateful to be off her feet, Fiji said, ’’To answer your question, no. Bobo never heard from her. At the time, I assumed she was being a bitch, putting Bobo through the most hell she could. But I see now how weird that was. You\'d think she\'d call to say, \'Box up my stuff, send it to wherever. I just couldn\'t stand the way you snore or grind your teeth or whatever.\' But she didn\'t. She didn\'t call any of us. Or send a letter. Or a text. At least, not that I\'ve heard.’’

’’Did she have any friends here? Or friends from before she moved in with Bobo?’’

Fiji looked at Manfred, a bit startled. ’’Now that you mention it, no. Isn\'t that something? None of us liked her much. Even the Rev.’’ They both glanced over to the older man, who was hunkered down in the scant shade of a small oak. Fiji was sure he was praying. She nodded approvingly. That was just what a minister should be doing under these circumstances.

’’How did you figure out the Rev didn\'t like Aubrey? I can\'t believe he\'d talk about it. It doesn\'t seem to me that he talks about anything.’’

’’I deduced it,’’ Fiji said, with dignity. ’’When the Rev would talk to her, his face would get all tight. Like he was suppressing something.’’ Fiji tried hard to imitate the expression. She saw that Manfred was trying to suppress a smile.

’’I saw you freeze that woman,’’ he said. ’’I take you seriously.’’

’’That\'s good,’’ she said. ’’I like to be taken seriously. I know I look . . . silly. I know everyone thinks I\'m either a fraud or deluded. So be it.’’

’’I don\'t think you are,’’ said a voice behind them, and Chuy sank down on his heels. ’’I have faith in you.’’ He looked at Fiji. ’’Course, that\'s probably my gullible Mexican background.’’

’’Right,’’ Fiji said. ’’\'Cause you\'re so superstitious.’’

She and Chuy smiled at each other.

’’I wish the police would come.’’ Manfred said. He smiled, too, but not happily. ’’I never thought I\'d hear myself saying that.’’

The Midnighters set themselves to wait. Grady began to cry, and Madonna gave him the only bottle she\'d brought with her. Teacher burped and changed him, and Grady fell asleep, to everyone\'s relief.

Creek and Connor sat together, hunched in the shade of the truck with Rasta panting beside them. Connor looked excited and frightened, all at the same time. Creek, who had a talent for looking inscrutable, was doing an especially fine job. Chuy took Joe a beer, which he drank in four gulps. While the Rev continued his solitary prayer, Olivia crouched by Bobo, who had gotten out of the truck to squat out in the open, staring into the distance. Every now and then a tear would roll down his cheek.

Each tear made Fiji more miserable. She fell into silence. Manfred got up to roam around. He went over to the big white boulder to read all the graffiti;he climbed down the steep slope upstream to look at the dinosaur footprints clearly visible below the running water. Since he\'d never known Aubrey, he had the right to fidget.

After a few minutes, Olivia seemed to tire of the role of grief counselor. She gave Bobo a small package of tissues from her backpack, and she stood effortlessly to walk over to Fiji.

’’I don\'t know what cracked her chest bone, but she didn\'t just have a heart attack.’’

’’I don\'t think so, either,’’ Fiji replied. ’’But she did walk and run. She did like to exercise. Maybe she came out here and fell? Broke her ankle?’’

’’Then what was to stop her crawling up the slope? It\'s not that steep. And why didn\'t she use her cell phone? You can\'t tell me she took a step without that phone in her pocket.’’

’’That\'s true.’’ Fiji pressed her lips together. ’’Well, maybe she got snakebit.’’

’’And crawled down the slope, rather than back toward Midnight?’’ Olivia said. She didn\'t pooh-pooh the idea that Aubrey had been bitten;this was a place where you had to be aware or take the consequences.

’’That is weird,’’ Fiji conceded. ’’But I hope they can find some clear reason.’’ There was a lot unspoken in that hope.

’’You saw her after Bobo left, right? Didn\'t you tell the sheriff\'s deputy that?’’

Fiji turned her head so that her eyes met Olivia\'s. ’’Of course I saw her after Bobo left,’’ she said. ’’Didn\'t you?’’

’’Sure,’’ Olivia said, after a moment. ’’Sure, I saw her.’’

Fiji nodded. ’’Well, then.’’

’’The law\'s here.’’

From the west came two white cars, driving carefully. They both had lightbars on the top.

Fiji had not met the sheriff, but she recognized him from his campaign posters. Arthur Smith, with his thick chest and shoulders and large eyes, reminded Fiji of a bull. His short curly hair, though mostly still a pale blond, had a heavy sprinkling of silver. She\'d voted for him, last election;more accurately, she\'d voted against his opponent, a known bully. It was a measure of the previous sheriff\'s unpopularity that Smith, not a native Texan, had won the contest.

Sheriff Smith was calm, businesslike, and in charge;there were no two ways about that.

’’Fiji Cavanaugh?’’ he asked, when he emerged from his car. Fiji raised her hand like a schoolgirl.

’’Where\'s the body?’’ When Fiji pointed down from the right point at the cliff edge, he sent two deputies scrambling down, laden with cameras and other paraphernalia.

After that, having looked over the people at the site, one by one, he began by talking to Fiji. She pegged him for about forty-five and automatically noted that his wedding ring finger was bare. He didn\'t have any obvious signs that screamed ’’bachelor,’’ though;he was absolutely trimmed, pressed, shaven, and starched.

’’I remember reading your name in the report when Mr. Winthrop first said his girlfriend was missing. You found the body, Ms. Cavanaugh?’’ he said. His accent was softer than the local one, from much farther east, though still south of the Mason-Dixon.

’’Yes, we all came out here for a picnic, and I was just walking along the cliff.’’

’’And what drew it to your attention?’’

’’The smell,’’ she said bluntly.

’’And who do you think this is, here on the slope?’’

Fiji stared at him. ’’The shoes are Aubrey Hamilton\'s,’’ she said finally. ’’And what\'s left of the hair is the right color to be Aubrey\'s.’’

’’So,’’ he said, ’’Ms. Hamilton vanished after Mr. Winthrop spent the night in Dallas?’’

’’During the time he spent in Dallas,’’ she corrected him.

’’And did you see Ms. Hamilton after he left? For this business trip?’’

’’He\'d gone to meet with some friends of his in the pawn business. They\'d talked online and they wanted to meet face to face. So he drove over to Dallas.’’

’’Did you see her after the time he\'d left?’’

’’Yes. Yes, I did.’’

’’Did you see her in the pawnshop?’’

’’No,’’ she said, without even thinking about it. She\'d never dropped into Midnight Pawn after Aubrey was in residence. Never. She could feel her face become tighter, as all her muscles hummed with tension.

’’Then where?’’

’’I saw her come out of the door,’’ she said. ’’She came out of the side door not the pawnshop door, the door to the landing, where the stairs lead up to Bobo\'s apartment and down to Olivia\'s.’’ She did not mention Lemuel.

’’To get to the apartments, you don\'t have to go through the store.’’

’’There\'s a door into the store from that landing, too. But it\'s usually locked.’’

Arthur Smith was trying very hard not to look impatient. ’’Okay. She came out of the side door.’’

’’I saw her come out that door and turn well, it would have been her left. To walk between the pawnshop and the rental house. On her way back to the parking area. I just thought she was going to run an errand . . . but that can\'t be right, because Bobo had the truck.’’ Would Olivia have lent Aubrey her car? Without thinking, Fiji turned to look at Olivia, who was in conference with Chuy and Joe.

’’Did you talk to her, or do you know what she planned to do while Mr. Winthrop was out of town?’’

’’No.’’ She shrugged. ’’We weren\'t close friends.’’ We weren\'t friends at all.

’’And who has Mr. Winthrop been seeing since Miss Hamilton vanished?’’

’’You mean . . . like dating? No one,’’ she said. ’’He\'s been really depressed.’’

For once, she\'d surprised the lawman. They both looked over at Bobo Winthrop. He had scrambled to his feet with the arrival of the police cars. The wind was blowing his golden hair. He looked like a slightly aged catalog model maybe for casual clothing or for a rugged lifestyle involving trucks and mountain climbing.


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