Midnight Crossroad Page 15

Manfred saw the other denizens of Midnight at Home Cookin, which had a few more customers than usual, thanks to reporters, law enforcement, and the idly curious. Sometimes the residents could not sit at their accustomed table.

Teacher told Manfred he\'d made some extra money changing tires that had gotten punctured on the rocks over by the riverbed.

Both Fiji and Chuy made grocery runs to Davy. Fiji got the items on the Rev\'s short list and delivered them to his little bare house, and in her own kitchen she cooked between helping store customers, so she could take Bobo chicken and dumplings and some seasoned green beans. Another night, Chuy cooked Tex-Mex with Joe\'s assistance, and they invited Manfred and Bobo to come to dinner.

Manfred accepted when Joe called him, for several reasons. Manfred loved meals he didn\'t have to cook, he liked Joe and Chuy, and he understood that their main goal was to get Bobo out of his own place and encourage him to eat some hot food.

Manfred and his landlord walked west to the Antique Gallery and Nail Salon together, not talking much along the way, and Bobo showed Manfred the outside flight of stairs that led up to Joe and Chuy\'s apartment. The building itself had been constructed long after Midnight Pawn, and as a result the ceilings weren\'t as high, so the whole structure was shorter.

’’I\'m glad they can\'t see in my windows,’’ Bobo said, and he almost laughed.

’’Can you see down into theirs?’’

’’I can see a sliver of their kitchen, but that\'s all,’’ Bobo said, knocking on the weathered wooden door.

’’Come in, and welcome!’’ Joe said, standing aside. ’’I\'ll take those jackets.’’ Manfred looked around him with some amazement. The apartment wasn\'t large, but it looked amazing. The colors were attractive and harmonious, there were ’’window treatments,’’ and the furniture had not been picked up at a curb before the garbage men could toss it.

Manfred had to admit to himself that he had had no idea that men could make their surroundings look anything more than utilitarian. He was genuinely impressed, and at the same time he called himself an idiot for not realizing that two people who between them could price antiques and style hair and nails would know something about putting together a good-looking home. He did feel a little strange when the tour included their bedroom, where Rasta was curled in the middle of a paprika and turquoise bedspread.

After five minutes, Manfred forgot that Joe and Chuy were men who had se* with each other. Instead, he was able to revel in the happy discovery that Chuy was a very good cook and that Joe kept a stock of excellent beer in his refrigerator.

Even Bobo became more cheerful as the evening passed. He talked sports with Joe and raising peppers with Chuy. They talked about the Westminster Dog Show, the difficulties of getting into vet school (Chuy hadn\'t managed it), and the pleasures and frustrations of buying on eBay. Chuy told them about his cousin Rose\'s fling with the Home Shopping Network and how he\'d brought Rose\'s minister in to pray with her over her addiction.

The way Chuy talked about Rose made Manfred regret his lack of family.

After dinner ended with a wonderful pecan pie, Manfred offered to do the dishes. Joe gratefully accepted his help. ’’If Chuy does the cooking, it seems only fair I clean up,’’ he said, ’’but it\'s always nice to have another pair of hands.’’ Most of the supper dishes went into the dishwasher, but Manfred scrubbed the pots and pans while Joe dried them. Afterward, Chuy showed them some snapshots of his and Joe\'s vacation in Amsterdam, one of the many places Manfred had not been.

As Manfred and Bobo walked home around ten o\'clock, conversation was sparse. ’’Nice dinner,’’ Manfred said, and after Bobo replied, ’’Man, those chicken enchiladas . . .’’ they were both done with talk, but in a content way. Manfred thought the evening had accomplished part of its goal, in getting Bobo out of his shell. Manfred himself had enjoyed the company because it was not one of his ’’sensitive’’ nights, when he learned more than he wanted to know about his companions.

But he was the one who noticed the car parked across Witch Light Road between the empty two-story building (its ghost of a sign read RÍO ROCA FRÍA HOTEL 1920) and the Home Cookin Restaurant. The car was deep in a shadow. Even as he recognized the shape of an automobile roof, Manfred was reluctant to emerge from the haze of well-being, but he couldn\'t ignore the alarm bells going off in his head. He grabbed Bobo\'s jacket sleeve and yanked him into the alley behind Gas N Go.

’’What the hell?’’ Bobo protested, but mildly.

’’Someone\'s parked over there in the shadows,’’ Manfred whispered. Bobo appeared to hear that silent alarm signal, too, because he instantly moved farther back into the shadows. ’’Do you see any people?’’ he asked. He didn\'t whisper, but his voice was very quiet.

’’No, and that worries me even more,’’ Manfred said.

’’\'Cause we\'re right behind you,’’ a man\'s voice said from the shadows.

Manfred wasn\'t ashamed to tell Fiji the next day that he screamed like a teenage girl in a horror movie.

But even as he screamed, he jumped toward danger, not away from it. So did Bobo. Manfred hadn\'t been in many fistfights or fights of any sort but he figured if he kept punching he\'d hit something, and he swung away like a wiry windmill. Bobo gave a more practiced exhibit of self-defense.

’’Help!’’ yelled Manfred, which was probably the most useful thing he could have done. He had no idea who might hear him in Midnight, but he had to try. To his astonishment, a light came on as the back door of Gas N Go flew open, and Creek Lovell charged out swinging a baseball bat.

It took her a second to identify the combatants, but when she did, she got behind the man Manfred was fighting and laid into the middle of his back with a formidable swing. He screamed and staggered, and Manfred actually got in a good hit on the man\'s jaw. Down he went, in a most gratifying way, leaving Manfred shaking his bruised and battered hand.

By then Shawn Lovell had pelted from the store to join in the fight, and he grabbed Bobo\'s assailant around the arms in a bear hug. Bobo socked the pinned man in the stomach, and the air left the man\'s lungs in a whoosh. He sagged.

By that time, Lemuel was there.

Manfred, bending over with his hands on his knees and panting for all he was worth, took a second to marvel that Lemuel had heard him call for help from the pawnshop.

’’Uncle Lem, they were trying to beat up Manfred and Bobo!’’ Creek yelled. She didn\'t seem to notice her voice was raised. Her eyes were wide, and she was still gripping the bat. ’’Dad! They were hiding behind our store!’’ She was all over the place, her gaze skittering from one man to the other, her body tense and ready to swing the bat again.

’’Deep breaths, little lady,’’ Lemuel said. ’’You have done a good thing tonight, and I\'m sure Manfred and Bobo are most grateful.’’

’’I am so grateful,’’ Manfred gasped, and when Creek looked at him sharply, thinking he was teasing her, he said, ’’Believe me, Creek.’’ After a couple of more wheezes, he was able to straighten up and look more manly;or at least he hoped so.

’’Pretty funny,’’ Bobo said. He leaned against the back wall of Gas N Go. ’’That we were trying to get away from them and instead we hid where they were hiding.’’

’’Hilarious,’’ Manfred agreed.

’’I\'ve called the police,’’ Shawn said. He didn\'t sound pleased at all;he sounded very angry. ’’Creek, please go in the store and put the bat back where we keep it. Tell Connor everything\'s okay. I don\'t want you to have to talk to the cops.’’

’’But . . . Dad! I did so good!’’ Creek was half indignant woman, half floored child.

’’You sure did, honey, but I don\'t want our name anywhere in a police report.’’ Shawn\'s voice was even, but you could tell he meant every word.

As soon as Manfred\'s brain began working again, he absorbed the idea that the Lovell family had a complicated back history.

That didn\'t surprise him at all.

The two attackers were conscious, and the one Creek had swung on was groaning. ’’That bitch broke my back,’’ he said. Manfred knelt by him and made sure the man was looking into his eyes. ’’You say that again, I\'ll jump on you with both feet,’’ Manfred told him.

There was a rusty sawing noise, and Manfred looked up to discover that that was what Lemuel sounded like when he laughed. The other prisoner, firmly caught by Lemuel\'s cold grip, was looking feebler by the moment. The Lemuel effect, Manfred thought, and almost smiled.

’’I don\'t know what you said on the phone, Shawn, but I can hear the lawmen coming from Davy already,’’ Lemuel said, his head cocked to the right side.

After a few more seconds, they all heard the sirens, but the first car to get there was a private car with a blue light stuck on top. It was Arthur Smith\'s car, and he was out of it and among them with a speed the much younger Manfred envied. Oddly, Manfred didn\'t realize his opponent had landed some good blows until he saw the sheriff. When Smith\'s eyes met his, Manfred became sharply aware that his jaw hurt, and his ribs, too.

’’These two men jumped us,’’ Bobo said, paring the story down. ’’It was lucky our friends came when we called.’’

’’Yelled like a banshee,’’ Manfred muttered.

By then a patrol officer was moving in right behind the sheriff, and Smith said, ’’Cuff this one and that one,’’ pointing to the two assailants. He looked from Bobo to Manfred. ’’I\'m taking your word for it because you live here and I\'ve never seen these men, so it doesn\'t make sense that you attacked them.’’

The one on the ground said, ’’Ask them where Curtis and Seth are, you think they\'re so innocent.’’

’’Who?’’ Manfred said blankly.

’’I don\'t know a Curtis or Seth,’’ Shawn said. ’’You, Bobo?’’

Bobo spread his hands, and Manfred saw that the knuckles were bleeding. ’’Not me.’’

Lemuel said, ’’I don\'t know them.’’

’’They came here,’’ the man insisted. ’’And they never came back.’’

’’We need to think about you, rather than your invisible friends,’’ Arthur Smith said, squatting beside the downed man. ’’You want to start with telling me your name and why you were waiting in a dark alley for these guys?’’

’’I don\'t want to tell you shit,’’ the man said, trying to sneer, but not managing very convincingly. ’’Hey, help me up. I can stand now.’’

’’Oh, so your back isn\'t broken?’’ Manfred said. He stepped back as Smith hauled the man to his feet with apparent ease. The man gasped, and Manfred saw he was in genuine pain, but as Manfred tenderly touched his own ribs, he felt no sympathy at all.

’’I am a citizen of the free country of Stronghold,’’ the newly upright man said suddenly. ’’I\'m not obliged to give you my slave name. My true name is Buffalo. I\'m a soldier of the army of the Men of Liberty. You must treat me as a prisoner of war according to the Geneva Convention.’’

That speech stopped all movement. Everyone gaped at him. The second man, who seemed exhausted now that Lemuel had been holding his arm for almost ten minutes, said, ’’I am a citizen of the free country of Stronghold, and I am not obliged to give you my slave name. My true name is Eagle. I\'m a . . . I\'m a soldier in the army of the Men of Liberty. You must treat me as a prisoner of war according to the Geneva Convention.’’

’’Damn,’’ said the uniformed officer, who happened to be black. ’’That\'s pretty big talk, coming from you two. Buffalo and Eagle, huh? Those the names on your drivers\' licenses? And I\'d like to know who enslaved you.’’

’’The false government of the United States.’’

Lemuel let go of the second man, who almost collapsed. The patrolman took advantage of the moment to cuff him.

Arthur Smith dipped into the pocket of ’’Buffalo,’’ and his hand was clutching a wallet when he pulled it out. ’’This man\'s slave name is Jeremy Spratt,’’ he said. ’’No wonder he likes \'Buffalo\' better. Tom?’’

The patrol officer extracted his prisoner\'s wallet. ’’This here\'s Zane Green,’’ he said. ’’Otherwise known as Eagle. He lives in Marthasville, it says here.’’

Smith reexamined Jeremy Spratt\'s license. ’’He\'s from Marthasville, too.’’ He looked at Jeremy Spratt quizzically. ’’Now, where did your missing buddies live, Buffalo?’’

’’Lubbock,’’ Buffalo said, and immediately looked as though he\'d bitten into a lemon. ’’Damn,’’ he muttered. Bobo started laughing, which made Buffalo (aka Jeremy) even angrier.

’’And why did you drive thirty miles from home to hang around in an alley in Midnight? Is there something wonderful about Midnight that I don\'t know?’’

Both prisoners clamped their mouths shut, and that was the end of their answering questions. They were hauled off to jail in Tom\'s patrol car, with Arthur Smith following behind in his own vehicle.

Lemuel vanished as quickly as he\'d appeared, and Manfred wondered why his buddy Olivia hadn\'t shown. Maybe she was out of town. No one else seemed to have heard the ruckus.

Manfred and Bobo thanked Creek and Shawn profusely. Creek was still twitchy with excitement, while Shawn just as clearly wanted to get rid of them.

’’Time to go home,’’ Bobo said, and began to walk toward the pawnshop. ’’You coming, Manfred?’’ As they crossed the Davy highway, he added, ’’Thanks for giving me a heads-up, even if we ended up walking into the lion\'s den.’’

’’Sure. I was real helpful,’’ Manfred said ruefully.

Bobo laughed. He sounded more like himself than he had since the body had been found. To Bobo, the fracas had been stimulating, apparently. Manfred was deflating like a balloon with each step he took, though.

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