Midnight Crossroad Page 18

Sure enough, a couple of minutes\' drive out of the Marthasville city limits, there was a driveway on the right. As a ranch had to be, it was fenced, and the driveway was crossed by a gate that had to be opened and closed every time a car drove through. Also, like many ranches, the name of the place was on an iron sign arching over the gateway. MOL, it read.

’’Nothing like being up front about it.’’ Manfred was leaning down in the front seat to look up at the sign. ’’And I see the gate is locked.’’

’’So what do we do with that information?’’ Fiji asked. ’’It\'s good to know where the evil hatemongers hang out, I see that. But how are we going to stop them from coming after Bobo again?’’

There was a moment of silence. Manfred couldn\'t think of any procedure on earth that could be done openly and legally. And it was out of the question to kill the MOL members. At least, it was to Manfred. Maybe Fiji was thinking of freezing them all permanently.

’’We\'ll think of a way,’’ Olivia said. She was smiling, and it wasn\'t a pleasant smile. Maybe Olivia had something else in mind.

To Manfred\'s bemusement, Fiji looked at Olivia with a sort of exasperation, and said, ’’You can\'t do that to all of them.’’

Manfred, sleepy and puzzled, waited to hear some explanation.

But Olivia didn\'t say a word.

19

Since he\'d played his part in the ’’help Bobo’’ movement, Manfred felt free to think about himself and his own concerns the next day. He worked late, not turning off his computer until after dark. When he finally got up, he realized he\'d been sitting in the same position for far too long. Walking off the stiffness, he strolled over to the window. The light over the storefront of Midnight Pawn was humming with bugs, and the two cars parked there looked forlorn in the bleak glare. Manfred had known that Lemuel kept the shop open at night, but he\'d never particularly noticed any customer traffic. Now he saw a strange, hunched shape come down the six steps to the street level. It paused to stuff something in its left coat pocket (it was just cool enough this night to make a sweater feasible but not a coat). Then, left foot dragging, the creature made its way to the driver\'s side of a Ford Fusion. Manfred found it impossible to tell if he was looking at a male or female;whatever this individual was, he was fairly sure it wasn\'t human.

He wondered what it had pawned. But he thought it would be indiscreet to actually go in the shop to ask Lemuel.

Plus, Lemuel might want to hold his hand again.

Manfred had tried not to brood about that little incident in the diner, but it had shaken him . . . Lemuel\'s intensely cold hand, the hard grip, the creeping weariness that had gradually sapped Manfred\'s strength. There had been something eerily pleasant about it, but the incident had also been really, really terrifying. And why had Lemuel picked him, Manfred, to feed from? Manfred had never doubted his own se*ual identity was hetero, but the connection had not been completely without intimacy.

Okay, he asked himself, trying to face and conquer this inconvenient uneasiness, how do you feel about the idea of kissing Lemuel?

He felt an instantaneous Yuck. Somewhat relieved by this response, he was not as tentative about exploring the question further. Do I seriously believe Lemuel thinks of me as a potential se* partner? was the next question. Probably not, he thought. After all, though he didn\'t have any direct evidence, he\'d gotten the definite impression that Olivia and Lemuel were a couple, or at least were having se*. Since this internal conversation was relieving an anxiety he hadn\'t realized he harbored, he thought he\'d carry it one step further. He\'d face Lemuel;he\'d erase this lingering uneasiness.

Manfred slipped out his front door and went up the steps into the pawnshop. The chilly night was silent, except for the tiny noises of the bugs overhead and the hum of the light. If there were this many insects in October, he hated to think of what it would be like in July. As the car outside had indicated, there was still a customer in the pawnshop, a woman. She was talking to Lemuel, who was sitting on the stool behind the counter. Manfred began browsing the shelves;there were so many to browse. The inside of the pawnshop was far larger than the outside might indicate.

The shelves and display cases were full of interesting things, dusty things, ancient things, deadly things and many things that were out-and-out weird. There were freestanding shelving units and built-in cabinets, and there were antique pieces of cabinetry that were stuffed with other pawned items. There were wooden shelves and metal ones, and the wooden ones ranged from weathered and silvery to smelling of pine.

There was a section for old electric appliances;there was a section for weapons;there was a section for jewelry, for old clothes, for pots and pans, for ’’collectibles’’;and there was one section for items so strange Manfred could not imagine how they\'d be used. Manfred was instantly intrigued by that area. There was a very old book bound in wooden plates;there was a sort of sculpture structure? made of twigs bound together at odd angles with purple ribbon;there was a cloudy crystal ball;there was a Ouija board with an endlessly gliding planchette. Manfred felt the hair stand up on his arms. These objects were magic and eerie and subtly dangerous, and yet he felt he could examine them forever. The cases of guns were much less interesting in Manfred\'s view, though Bobo had told him what a draw they were to other shoppers.

He was vaguely aware that the customer was concluding her transaction with Lemuel. Then, suddenly, she was by Manfred\'s side. It was no woman, but it was a female creature. She was thin and angular, with eyes black as pitch. Her short hair was just as ebon, and it looked as though it had been cut in the dark with a dull knife. She leaned over to smell Manfred, her tongue flicking out in a most disconcerting manner, and she hissed at him.

Manfred held as still as a mouse hoping a cat will not sense its presence. But she seized his arm.

’’Tassssty,’’ she said.

’’Glinda,’’ said Lemuel quietly. ’’No. He\'s a friend.’’

The black eyes blinked more than once. Did she have two eyelids? Manfred did not twitch, much less speak.

’’Ssssssshit,’’ she said, and released his arm. The next instant, she was gone.

’’Buddy of yours?’’ Manfred asked, when he was sure his voice would be even.

’’I don\'t think snake shifters have buddies,’’ Lemuel said. ’’They just know people they haven\'t tried to eat yet.’’

’’She doesn\'t try to eat you?’’

’’They only eat living things,’’ Lemuel said, turning to walk back to the counter. ’’Did you want to pawn something, buy something, or were you just stretching your legs?’’

’’A little of taking a work break, a little of wondering about your energy drainage thing,’’ Manfred said, thinking if he didn\'t say it out loud now he might chicken out.

To his relief, Lemuel smiled. ’’I should have explained,’’ the cold man said. ’’As I\'m sure you\'ve puzzled out, I\'m a sort of vampire. I\'m not what has become known in popular literature as a traditional vampire. I can feed on energy or blood or both simultaneously. That\'s the best meal, but I don\'t get it often.’’

’’Because the feed-ee dies if you do that?’’

’’Yes, the one I\'m feeding on dies.’’ Lemuel smiled.

’’And that night at the diner?’’

’’The strangers caused me concern. I estimated I might need to be as strong as possible in the near future. I tapped you.’’

’’Why me?’’ To Manfred, this was the most important question. Not that he wouldn\'t have to think hard, later, about Lemuel\'s diet and the fact that Lemuel hadn\'t given him a choice, but this was the question that had worried him.

’’I could tell you were an open-minded person,’’ Lemuel said, pale eyes on some small repair he was making to a piece of jewelry under a magnifying lamp. ’’Not likely to jump up and scream, \'Oh sweet Jesus, another man is holding my hand!\'’’

Manfred laughed weakly.

’’And I also believed that you would stay here, that you were not passing through, and that it was, therefore, the quickest way to let you know what I was.’’

Manfred wanted to ask Lemuel if Olivia was his girlfriend, but in Lemuel\'s presence he could see how silly that would sound. How intrusive.

’’You are interested in Creek,’’ Lemuel said unexpectedly.

’’She\'s very attractive,’’ Manfred said cautiously. ’’I realize she\'s younger than me, and I\'m not going to, ah, initiate anything improper. But I would like to get to know her better.’’

Lemuel\'s eyes were almost white, now, when he glanced up. ’’She is a lovely child,’’ Lemuel said. ’’But I realize she is on the cusp of becoming a woman. If she decides to become a woman with you, you had better be damned sure she is fully aware and agreeable to every step of the process.’’

Manfred replied with complete honesty, ’’I would never do otherwise.’’

’’Then we are not enemies,’’ Lemuel said. ’’And we may become friends, as I told the snake woman we were.’’

’’When were you born, Lemuel, if I can ask?’’

’’I was born in 1837,’’ Lemuel said. ’’My name was not Lemuel then.’’

’’A big adjustment, from then to now,’’ Manfred said, since it was all he could think of to say that wasn\'t fatuous. But that was fatuous enough.

Lemuel discarded one tool and selected another. ’’That is true,’’ he agreed. ’’Good night, psychic.’’

’’Good night, vampire,’’ Manfred said. Since he\'d clearly been dismissed, he went home.

20

Bobo was by himself the next morning when Sheriff Smith came in. Normally, he\'d have taken Monday off and let Teacher work in his place, but he\'d missed enough work, he figured. And he didn\'t have anything better to do. He\'d perched on the stool behind the high counter with a large mug of coffee. He was looking at a piece of jewelry that had been mended, apparently the night before, by Lemuel. The clasp had not worked on the brooch since it had been pawned twenty years before (Bobo had looked it up once in the ancient ledger), but now it did, and the brooch was in the display case that formed the counter, with a new tag on it in Lemuel\'s curious handwriting. It read, ’’Twenty dollars. Will be called for.’’

Bobo held it out, and the sheriff bent over the counter to look at it.

’’If you have a lady in your life, she might enjoy something like this, Sheriff,’’ Bobo said. ’’If she\'s old-fashioned.’’ The brooch was hand-painted with a picture of yellow flowers in a pale green vase, set against a gray-blue background. The frame was gold, set with tiny pearls.

Bobo wondered if he was about to be arrested. His heart pounded furiously, but he did his best to sound calm.

’’I have a wife, my third,’’ Smith answered. ’’But she doesn\'t like anything but modern stuff.’’

’’Not a traditional woman, then,’’ Bobo said.

’’Not in the best sense of traditional,’’ Smith said. ’’But traditional in the way that means she expects me to provide everything for her while she sits at home on her butt.’’

’’Children?’’

’’No, she doesn\'t even have children to look after,’’ Smith said. ’’I have a child by another marriage, but she lives in Georgia with her mom.’’

’’I guess you don\'t get to see her often,’’ Bobo said. ’’That\'s sad. What can I do for you today?’’

Bobo found himself on the receiving end of one of Arthur Smith\'s concentrated looks. Sheriff Smith didn\'t blink much, so the stare was pretty effective.

’’You can tell me more about your history with Aubrey Hamilton,’’ the sheriff said. The sheriff turned Bobo\'s favorite chair to face the counter and settled himself in it. He looked quite at ease. ’’And by the way, she wasn\'t shot. Someone wanted us to think she was, or someone was trying to put the blame on you. But we hired a specialist to look at the remains. The hole in her chest was not from a bullet.’’

Bobo let out a long, unsteady breath.

’’You don\'t seem to be regarding me as a prime suspect in her death any longer,’’ Bobo said, manfully accepting the fact that the sheriff was sitting in his favorite chair. After all, the guy wasn\'t arresting him for murder. He could have the damn chair. ’’And since I\'ve already been into the police station once, you\'ve searched my place, you\'ve told me she wasn\'t shot so I\'m in the clear on the gun, and I have a lawyer on speed dial, I\'m wondering what my status is now.’’

’’For the time period in which Ms. Hamilton well, Mrs. Lowry must have died . . . if we accept the testimony of Fiji Cavanaugh and your tenant . . . your presence in Dallas has been confirmed,’’ Smith said, sounding neither pleased nor displeased. ’’We could drum up a charge based on the fact that that gun was supposed to be here and secure, not laying on the ground by a river, but of course we can\'t prove you were negligent enough to leave it there. It could have been stolen from here, though in that case your security needs some tending. Or your employees Lemuel Bridger or Teacher Reed could have taken it out. Unless more evidence turns up, you\'re in the clear.’’

’’Wow,’’ said Bobo, as he absorbed this information. ’’Well, I feel relieved, of course.’’ He shifted around on the stool, not sure where to look.

’’You don\'t sound as happy as I expected.’’

’’I\'m not happy,’’ Bobo said. ’’I loved Aubrey, and she\'s dead. Not only did I lose her, but I\'ve found out our whole relationship was a lie.’’

’’You believed everything she told you?’’

Probably the sheriff was trying to sound neutral, but Bobo caught a hint of incredulity. ’’You seem to be a skeptical kind of man,’’ he said. ’’I guess in your line of work, that\'s inevitable. I have a sister and a mother. They aren\'t really pleasant women, or very smart . . . but they do tell the truth, as they see it. I know a lot of truthful women. And I guess I\'m not conceited enough to imagine women making up elaborate schemes to meet me, like you say Aubrey did. My family\'s had trouble enough in the past. I don\'t need any more.’’


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