Midnight Crossroad Page 13

Fiji glanced over at the desk in the corner that Shawn had put there. It was a place for Connor to do his homework. Shawn didn\'t even trust the fourteen-year-old to do his homework in his own home, a small house to the north of the gas station, on the Davy highway. Shawn Lovell was not a man long on trust, Fiji thought, not for the first time. The Lovells kept their history to themselves, and everyone in Midnight respected that.

Carrying her bag of milk, Fiji decided to walk a little farther, down to the Antique Gallery and Nail Salon. It was open. To her surprise, there was a woman she didn\'t know sitting in Chuy\'s special chair getting a mani-pedi.

Fiji had planned to have an idle conversation with Joe, whom she knew a little better than Chuy, who was more reserved. But just as she came in and Chuy told her where Joe was, another customer came in, a rancher\'s wife from Marthasville way, and she was there to buy a picture frame she\'d admired the previous week.

Next, Fiji crossed the road to Home Cookin. Madonna was sitting at the counter working a crossword puzzle while Grady napped.

’’Hey,’’ said Madonna, without much enthusiasm. ’’Too late for lunch, but I got some leftovers I can sell you.’’

’’I just wanted to see how you all were doing,’’ Fiji said, knowing as she said it that she sounded weak. She had never dropped into Home Cookin between mealtimes before, and she\'d never set foot in the double-wide trailer set up behind the restaurant. ’’Teacher working today?’’

’’Yeah, he\'s working about six miles east. Helping a retired postal worker rebuild his front steps. That means Teacher\'s doing it while the old man sits watching and talking.’’ Madonna looked longingly at her crossword, and Fiji took the hint and left.

The Rev was not in the chapel. Fiji found him behind the fence in the pet cemetery. It was a place that fascinated her, partly because it was one of the few concealed places in Midnight. The wooden fence, the planks pointed at the top, was at least six and a half feet tall and painted an immaculate white.

The Rev had left the trees in place, so it was peaceful inside. Fiji didn\'t know how long it had been since the Rev had established the cemetery, but she estimated it was about half full of graves.

Some were marked with crosses, some with Stars of David, others with pentagrams. There was a cat statue on one little rectangle, a dog\'s leash mounted on a forked stick on another, and an actual small headstone carved with ’’Tonks.’’ There were pictures on frames sticking up out of the dirt marking some graves. Some were marked only by mounds.

’’What are you doing today?’’ she asked. The old man was standing at an especially large monument in the middle of the ’’occupied’’ area.

’’It\'s bless the graves day,’’ he said.

’’Oh . . . appropriate,’’ she said. ’’I\'ll leave you to it.’’

But she watched for a few minutes, the plastic bag with the milk hanging from her hand, while the Rev moved slowly from grave to grave, praying for each departed soul. This ritual, which he performed monthly, often took him two days. Seeing he was absorbed in his task, she eased out of the gate without further comment.

She looked across the street at Midnight Pawn. She glimpsed Bobo\'s face at the window of his apartment. But he did not raise his hand or acknowledge her in any way, so she trudged back to her house, the milk banging against her leg.

After dark that night, Fiji saw that the pawnshop lights were on, and she walked over to the store. She needed some company. She was too wired up to read or to watch television.

Lemuel was at his post. Fiji was not at all surprised to find that Olivia had come up from her apartment to keep him company. There was a customer, too. Lemuel appeared to be striking a bargain with a strange, hunched man.

The most interesting people come in at night, Fiji thought. She stepped past the men to sit by Olivia in the two chairs that matched a breakfast table.

’’I could kick myself now that I know about Aubrey,’’ Olivia muttered to Fiji, as Lemuel and the hunched man agreed on terms. ’’I should have investigated her, when it became obvious that she didn\'t fit in.’’

Fiji didn\'t ask any questions about what qualified Olivia to investigate or how she would have gone about such a thing. If you were going to live in Midnight, there were some subjects you didn\'t delve into. ’’When were you sure you didn\'t like her?’’ she asked, trying not to sound too eager to know the answer.

’’After she\'d been here a couple of weeks,’’ Olivia replied without hesitation.

Fiji suppressed a triumphant smile. Her spell had been effective, maybe! Though if it had really worked, if Olivia had understood Aubrey\'s true nature as Fiji had hoped everyone would do, Aubrey\'s true nature hadn\'t seemed quite as repulsive to Olivia (or anyone else) as Fiji had hoped. For a moment, Fiji didn\'t think well of herself. If it required a spell for Aubrey\'s true nature to become apparent . . . didn\'t that mean her false one was pretty damn good? In fact, close to being true? Was Fiji\'s spell-casting only an exhibition of sour grapes? What if her own true character was open to everyone\'s interpretation? Thinking of her many failings and weaknesses, Fiji shrank from the idea.

’’What can we do to help Bobo?’’ she said.

’’Aside from saying we saw her after he left? I didn\'t know you could lie so convincingly,’’ Olivia said. ’’I think that\'s a pretty damn good thing, that we did that.’’

’’If he did it, I don\'t care,’’ Fiji said. ’’Especially in view of what we\'ve learned about Aubrey.’’

’’I wouldn\'t have cared even if she\'d been a saint,’’ Olivia said calmly. ’’I\'m sure our focus should be on who else could have killed Aubrey, and if we find another viable suspect . . .’’

The hunched man had left, and now Lemuel spun around on the stool behind the counter. ’’Yes,’’ he said. ’’That\'s what we must do. The gun is worrying me. From Olivia\'s description, I remember it. It was here in the shop for years.’’ Lemuel\'s icy eyes glinted with excitement.

Fiji wasn\'t surprised at Lemuel\'s being on topic. He\'d always had amazing hearing and the equally interesting ability to listen to two conversations at one time. She respected Lemuel, and she wasn\'t afraid of him . . . much. Once, when Olivia\'s return from one of her mysterious trips had been delayed, Fiji had offered Lemuel some blood. She\'d been glad when he\'d taken some energy instead, standing silently in her kitchen holding her hand for five minutes that felt like an eternity. Afterward, he\'d thanked her briskly and then left with as much haste as if they\'d done something much more intimate and embarrassing.

Olivia had come over to thank her, perhaps a bit cautiously, a bit warily, when she\'d returned. But after a sharp look at Fiji\'s face, she\'d given her a hug, and they\'d been almost-friends ever since.

Now Olivia said, ’’Not only was the gun from here, Bobo took it out to shoot targets a couple of times.’’

Fiji\'s heart sank at this piece of information. Surely the sheriff would consider that damning evidence. ’’I can think of twenty explanations for the gun being out there,’’ she said, though that wasn\'t literally true. Two or three, maybe, and none of those particularly convincing.

’’Sure, so can I. I\'m leaving on a short trip tomorrow, but I\'ll be back soon, and we\'ll talk about how to get this done.’’ Olivia nodded to them both. ’’I\'ll be thinking on the plane.’’

’’Where you going this time?’’ Fiji asked. She didn\'t know if she\'d like to travel as much as Olivia did, but it would be nice to find out someday.

’’San Francisco,’’ Olivia said, and from the corner of her eye, Fiji saw Lemuel\'s head jerk. Obviously, this was new information to him. He began to speak but snapped his pale lips shut on his comment.

Olivia looked at him directly. ’’I\'ll be fine,’’ she said. ’’Don\'t worry. Quick in and out.’’

What the hell is this about? Fiji asked herself.

’’All right.’’ There was no expression on Lemuel\'s face whatsoever.

’’I\'ll be fine,’’ Olivia repeated.

Lemuel nodded reluctantly, and silence fell. The three sat in an uneasy companionship (Fiji trying to think of a graceful way to leave without being obvious) until a ragged woman came in to pawn a very old gold wedding ring.

The ragged woman reeked. There was no other word for it. Fiji had never smelled anything like the odor that surrounded the woman like a cloud. She held her breath as long as she could, which wasn\'t long enough.

Quickly and wordlessly, Lemuel gave the woman forty dollars and took the ring. The ragged woman, whose sticklike figure and huge dark eyes made her look like something out of a cartoon, hurried out into the night, her movements both furtive and jerky.

Lemuel turned the ring in his fingers, holding it close to the desk lamp. ’’N.E.S. to his Leticia,’’ he read. ’’It\'s engraved on the inside of the ring.’’

’’Where\'d she get that, I wonder?’’ Fiji asked.

’’I suspect she dug up a grave and stole it off a corpse\'s finger,’’ Lemuel said.

’’Oh, my God,’’ Olivia said, her nose puckering with disgust.

’’That\'s just rank,’’ Fiji agreed.

’’Has the sheriff come by to talk to you?’’ Lemuel said suddenly.

’’No. He spent this morning with Bobo, though,’’ Fiji said. ’’I saw his car.’’ She didn\'t try to sound disinterested. They\'d know it was a lie.

’’He didn\'t talk to me,’’ Olivia volunteered. ’’But I did notice he drove over to the Reeds\' place.’’

’’From the most involved to the least involved,’’ Lemuel said thoughtfully. ’’I must think on that some.’’

And maybe there\'s something about the Reeds we don\'t know, Fiji thought.

15

On Wednesday morning, Manfred woke up thinking about the people of Midnight, starting with the mysterious Olivia. When Manfred imagined her with Lemuel, it gave him a frisson of something he didn\'t care to examine. (He called it distaste.) Based on Manfred\'s own experience, he couldn\'t deny that Lemuel had a powerful presence though if Lemuel had been human, he\'d hardly have been an attention-grabber by virtue of his looks alone.

As Manfred ate whole-wheat toast at the little Formica table his grandmother had had in her own kitchen, his mind next wandered to his happiest thought target, Creek Lovell. He wondered how she\'d feel today. He\'d noticed the discovery of Bobo\'s girlfriend\'s body had been both shocking for Creek and exciting for Connor. Manfred figured neither of the kids had encountered as much death as the older Midnighters. Creek had locked down emotionally after a few tears, while Connor had looked from one person to another, soaking it all in.

Manfred had worked the day before, as usual, but he\'d paused often to think over the disastrous picnic. And the lack of grief over the death of a young woman they\'d all known. None of them had looked shattered besides Bobo and the flash of sadness from Creek.

And that brought Manfred full circle back to the girl at Gas N Go. Reaching a sudden decision, he downed the last of his Coca-Cola (his morning beverage of choice) and left the house to saunter past Midnight Pawn, navigate the Davy highway (three cars!) before crossing the apron to the belled front door of the convenience store. Inside, everything was bright and shiny and fluorescent. All the walls were freshly painted and the linoleum was clean.

A dark-haired man in his early forties was behind the high counter. He was loading cigarette packs into the display, and as Manfred entered he locked the clear plastic door and turned to face him. ’’Hi!’’ he said, leaning over the counter to extend his hand. ’’You\'re the new guy, right? Manfred? I\'m Shawn Lovell.’’

’’Nice to meet you, Shawn. Yeah, I\'m the newbie. I came in to pick up some stuff.’’

’’Sure. What you see is what we got.’’ Shawn swept his hand through the air to indicate the shelves of junk food and small necessities, like batteries and tissue and cooking oil. Shawn Lovell looked like Everyman. About five foot ten, short dark hair with a little gray, not thin or fat, clean-shaven, no scars or birthmarks or moles. If a movie role had called for a generic guy, Shawn Lovell would have been up for the part. But while he was smiling, he was wary;that was the interesting thing. Shawn was an easy read.

Manfred bought a Coca-Cola, a box of graham crackers, and some Slim Jims. He placed them on the counter and hauled out his wallet. He could hardly ask exactly where Creek was. He\'d been sure he\'d see her. ’’How are Connor and Creek? I mean, after what happened?’’ he asked, hoping to come at his goal sideways.

Shawn said, ’’They were pretty shaken up.’’ Though he almost sounded neutral, Manfred could feel the tension and anxiety in the man. He supposed that was natural in a father with teenagers who\'d been exposed to the nastier side of life.

’’I\'m glad they didn\'t see the body,’’ Manfred said.

’’Me, too especially Connor.’’ Immediately, Shawn looked as if he wished he hadn\'t spoken.

Manfred was so tempted to say, ’’Why not Creek?’’ But he knew that any singular mention of Creek would be a mistake. ’’Glad they\'re okay,’’ he said, his voice as neutral as Shawn\'s had been. He took his bag of unnecessary purchases and turned to leave. ’’Good to meet you,’’ he added over his shoulder. ’’I think now I know everyone in town.’’

’’See you, man,’’ Shawn said. But he looked as if he hoped he wouldn\'t see Manfred any time soon. The bell over the door rang as a patrol officer came in, and this time Shawn turned away as if he were glad this conversation was over.

Manfred nodded and left. As he walked back to his house, he thought, Shawn Lovell is one tense guy. I guess like everyone else here, he\'s got a secret. Manfred was almost tempted to try to forget about Creek Lovell and her smooth skin and her intelligent eyes. Getting past her dad was going to be a piece of work. I should locate the nearest honky-tonk and meet a woman my own age, he thought, but the idea was kind of ridiculous. He was not much of a bar person. He liked parties well enough, but he didn\'t know anyone in this area who\'d invite him. He was not a churchgoer, he was not political, and he knew all too well the perils of meeting someone online.


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