Midnight Crossroad Page 2

’’Damn.’’

He\'s not aware he\'s said it out loud until Bobo says, ’’Be very afraid.’’

’’Who is she?’’

’’She rents one of my apartments. Olivia Charity.’’ Manfred is pretty sure that Olivia Charity is not the woman\'s real name. Bobo knows her true name, but he\'s not going to voice it. Curiouser and curiouser.

And then Manfred realizes that all morning, throughout the camaraderie of unloading the van, neither of his companions asked the obvious questions. Why are you moving to such a godforsaken place? What brings you here? What do you do? Where did you live before?

And Manfred Bernardo realizes he\'s moved to the right place. In fact, it\'s just like he belongs here.

1

Manfred succeeded in getting his computer equipment set up in less than two days. He started catching up on his websites Thursday afternoon. Time was money in the psychic business.

He was able to roll his favorite chair right up to the large L-shaped desk that dominated what should have served as the living room, the room facing Witch Light Road. His computer equipment was set up there, and there were filing cabinets that rolled under the desk, though most of his files were online. Aside from the computer desk and chair, in an alcove there were two padded chairs with arms. He\'d arranged them facing each other over a small round table, just in case he had a client in his own home who wanted a palm or tarot reading.

This seemed like the obvious and best use of the biggest room, to Manfred. He had no sense of decorating, but he had a great sense of utility. The big room had windows on three sides, all covered with ancient blinds. The blinds were useful but depressing, so he\'d put up curtains to camouflage them. The ones he\'d hung at the front were forest green and gold, the ones at the side overlooking the driveway were paisley patterned, and the set facing the next house to the east (which was empty) were solid red. Manfred thought the result was cheerful.

He\'d placed his grandmother\'s love seat and an easy chair in the former dining room, along with the TV on its stand, and he\'d jammed Xylda\'s little dinette set into an alcove in the kitchen. His bedroom, which was reached through a door in the west wall of the kitchen, was very basic. With Bobo\'s help, he\'d assembled the double bed and made it up with sheets and a bedspread. The bathroom off it, the only one in the house, was also basic, but large enough. There was a toolshed in the backyard, which he hadn\'t investigated. But he\'d taken the time to make an exploratory trip to the biggest grocery store in Davy, so there was food in the refrigerator.

Manfred was satisfied that he was set up in his new place and ready to go back to work.

The first website he visited was the one dedicated to ’’Bernardo, Psychic and Seer.’’ His publicity picture was half of the home page. He was wearing all black, naturally, and he was standing in the middle of a field with lightning coming out of his fingers. (Every time he admired the Photoshopped bolts, he thought of his lightning-struck friend, Harper.)

Bernardo, Psychic and Seer, had gotten 173 e-mails during the days he\'d been busy with the move. He checked them quickly. Some of them were of the spam variety, and he quickly deleted them. Four were from women who wanted to get to know him intimately, one similar message was from a man, five were from people who thought he ought to go to hell, and ten were from people who wanted to know more about his ’’powers.’’ He referred them to his biography, largely fictitious and obviously prominent on his home page. In Manfred\'s experience, people were endlessly prone to ignore the obvious especially people who were seeking help from psychics. Out of the 173 messages, he would answer the rest, but in his estimation there were only nine that might lead to money.

His duty done by the Bernardo visitors, he checked his ’’The Incredible Manfredo’’ website. If you used your credit card (or PayPal) to give fifteen dollars to Manfredo to answer your question, he would reply. The Incredible Manfredo was adept at discerning this answer ’’from beyond’’ and relaying that answer to the questioner over the Internet. The beyond was ’’the place from whence he received his awesome powers.’’ Many seekers were attracted to the Incredible Manfredo, a dark-haired, dramatically handsome man in his forties, judging by the picture on the website. He had 194 questioners lined up, and these people had paid. Responding to these took quite a bit longer, and Manfred thought about his replies carefully. It was impossible to use his true gift over the Internet, but he did use a lot of psychology, and he thought a television doctor could not have done better. Especially since most of the answers could be made clearer in a subsequent query for another charge of fifteen dollars.

After he\'d spent three hours working on the ’’Incredible’’ website, Manfred made his third stop of the day, at his professional Facebook page under his full name, Manfred Bernardo. The Facebook picture was much slicker and played up his pale face, his platinum spiked hair, and the multiple piercings on his face. Tiny silver rings followed the line of one eyebrow, his nose was pierced, and his ears were scattered with silver rings and studs. He couldn\'t stomach gauges, but he\'d had his rook pierced. He looked very dynamic, very intense. The photographer had worked well with him.

There were lots of messages and comments on his last posting, which read: ’’I\'ll be out of touch for a few days. It\'s time for me to retreat and meditate, to tune my psyche for the jobs ahead. When I\'m back in touch with you, I\'ll have some amazing news.’’

Now Manfred had to decide what the amazing news would be. Had he received a great revelation from the spirits of those who\'d passed beyond? If so, what would it be? Or maybe it was the right moment for Manfred Bernardo, Psychic and Seer, to make some personal appearances. That would be some amazing news, all right.

He decided that now that he was in Texas, fresh territory, he would schedule some one-on-ones, for a few weeks from now. These were taxing, sure, but he could charge a lot more for them. On the other hand, there was the expense of travel. He had to stay in a very good hotel, to reassure the clients that they were getting their money\'s worth. But it would feel good to touch the flesh a little, get the spark going again. He\'d learned everything about the psychic business from his grandmother, and she\'d believed in the power of personal attention.

Though Xylda had loved the concept of easy money to be made online, she\'d never adapted to it;and really, she\'d been more of a performance artist. He grinned as he remembered Xylda\'s appearances in front of the press during the last big murder case she\'d worked. She\'d enjoyed every minute of the publicity. Most grandsons would have found the old lady a source of acute embarrassment: her bright dyed hair, her flamboyant clothes and makeup, her histrionics. But Manfred had found Xylda a fountain of information and instruction, and they\'d adored each other.

For all Xylda\'s fraudulent claims, she\'d had flashes of the real thing. Manfred hoped she\'d never realized that he was much more gifted than she\'d ever been. He had a sad suspicion that Xylda had known this, but they\'d never done more than refer obliquely to it. Now they never would. He dreamed of her often, and she talked to him in those dreams, but it was more of a monologue than a dialogue.

Maybe she would pop up in one of his séances.

On the whole, he hoped she wouldn\'t.

2

A few days later, Bobo Winthrop was thinking about his new tenant when Fiji came into Midnight Pawn. Bobo was sitting in a comfortable chair probably crafted sometime around the turn of the century. It was made of dark, ornately carved wood with faded crimson velvet cushions. He\'d been sitting in this chair for a month now, and he would miss it if the owner ever came back to redeem it. Of course, the guy should have taken it down to the Antique Gallery and Nail Salon, but he hadn\'t wanted to deal with ’’fruitcakes,’’ as he\'d so charmingly termed Joe and Chuy. After looking at the chair for twenty-four hours, Bobo had positioned it in front of one of the wooden posts that went from floor to ceiling. He\'d put an old table by it. The chair seemed at home in the maze of the pawnshop, and he was not instantly visible from the front door.

’’Bobo?’’ Fiji called. ’’You here?’’

’’In my chair,’’ he said, and she began working her way through the furniture and assorted items that had been left there over the years. Away from the front windows, the pawnshop was dim and dusty, with a lamp left on here and there to guide the visitor.

Bobo was pleased to see Fiji. He liked her freckles and her gentleness and her cooking. It didn\'t bother him that Fiji said she was a witch. Everyone in Midnight had a past, and everyone had a freaky side. Some showed it more than others. Backlit by the daylight streaming in the big front window, Fiji picked her way carefully through the decades of accumulated items that filled Midnight Pawn. She smiled when she reached Bobo.

’’Hola, Fiji!’’ Bobo said, flipping a hand toward the rocker that he\'d favored before he\'d tried out the velvet chair.

She smiled even more happily after his greeting and sat her generously curved derriere in the rocking chair. ’’How are you, Bobo?’’ she asked, a little anxiously.

’’Good. And yourself?’’

She relaxed. ’’Fine as frog\'s hair. What are you thinking about today?’’

’’My new neighbor,’’ Bobo said promptly. He had never lied to Fiji.

’’I took him some lemonade and cookies,’’ she said.

’’What kind of cookies?’’ Bobo asked, because to him that was the important point.

She laughed. ’’The sand tarts.’’

Bobo closed his eyes in exaggerated longing. ’’You have any left over?’’

’’I might have kept some back, after I had a good look at him. He didn\'t look like much of a cookie eater.’’ In fact, Manfred\'s thin body had made Fiji all too conscious of her own curves.

Bobo slapped his stomach, which was still quite flat. ’’Not my problem,’’ he said.

’’No, it\'s not,’’ she said dryly. ’’I\'ll bring \'em over later.’’ Then she paused, just on the verge of saying something else.

’’Out with it,’’ he said.

’’I recognized him,’’ she said. ’’Manfred.’’

His brilliant blue eyes opened wide. ’’From where?’’

’’From the newspapers. From People magazine.’’

Bobo sat forward, his lazy contentment destroyed. ’’Maybe you better tell me,’’ he said, but he didn\'t sound excited. ’’I\'m surprised you didn\'t come over before.’’

’’I\'m sorry,’’ she said. ’’I . . .’’ She stopped dead.

’’What?’’

She looked as though she wished she\'d sink through the floor. ’’You\'ve had enough to deal with since Aubrey took off.’’

’’You really don\'t need to coddle me, Feej,’’ he said. ’’Women leave guys every day. I felt pretty damn bad about it, but she\'s gone and I haven\'t heard from her. Aubrey\'s not coming back.’’ He forced himself out of the abyss always waiting to swallow him. ’’So what\'s the deal with Manfred?’’

’’Okay, then,’’ Fiji said, shrugging. ’’He\'s a psychic.’’

Bobo began to laugh. ’’A phone psychic? No wonder he was so interested in the phone and Internet situation here. He must have asked me a dozen questions. I couldn\'t even answer all of them.’’ Midnight was very fortunate in getting excellent cell phone service and Internet service, purely by chance. A division of Magic Portal, a major Internet gaming company, was located just close enough.

Fiji\'s lips tightened. ’’Ha-ha,’’ she said flatly. ’’Listen, I know you\'re not a computer person, but Google his name, okay? You know how to Google, don\'t you?’’

’’I just put my lips together and blow?’’ Bobo said.

Fiji caught the reference, but she wasn\'t in the mood for jollity. ’’Bobo, he\'s the real deal.’’ She wriggled uneasily in her hard wooden rocker. ’’He\'ll know stuff.’’

’’You saying I have secrets he might reveal?’’ Bobo was still smiling, but the fun had gone out of his eyes. He combed his longish blond hair back with both hands.

’’We all have secrets,’’ Fiji said.

’’Even you, Feej?’’

She shrugged. ’’A few.’’

’’You think I do, too?’’ He regarded her steadily. She met his eyes.

’’I know you do. Otherwise, why would you be here?’’ Abruptly, Fiji heaved herself out of the rocker. Her back was stiff, as if she intended to march out of the store. But instead, as he\'d known she would, she wandered through the pawnshop for a minute or two before she left. Fiji always found it impossible to leave without looking at the pawned things in the store . . . on counters, on shelves, in display cases. Countless items, once treasured, sat in weary abandonment. Bobo was surprised to see her face turn a bit sad as she reached the door and cast one look back over her shoulder.

Bobo imagined that Fiji was thinking he fit right in.

3

Manfred worked every waking hour for the next few days to make up for the time he\'d lost moving. He didn\'t know why he felt impelled to work so hard, but when he realized he felt like a squirrel at the approach of winter, he dove into making the bucks. He\'d found it paid to heed warnings like that.

Because he was absorbed in his work and had promised himself to unpack three boxes every night, he didn\'t mingle in Midnight society for a while after that first lunch with Bobo, Joe, and Chuy. He made a couple more grocery and supply runs up to Davy, which was a dusty courthouse town as bare and baked as Midnight but far more bustling. There was a lake at Davy, a lake fed by the Río Roca Fría, the slow-moving, narrow river that ran northwest-southeast about two miles north of the pawnshop. The river had once been much wider, and its banks reflected its former size. Now they sloped down for many feet on either side, an overly dramatic prelude to the lazy water that glided over the round rocks forming the bottom of the bed.


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