Midnight Crossroad Page 20

’’What happened to her?’’ Joe asked Bobo. ’’Did the sheriff say?’’

Manfred glanced up in time to see Bobo shake his head.

’’So, you\'re in the clear. Why are you so grim?’’ Olivia asked bluntly.

’’Her family doesn\'t want me at the funeral.’’ Bobo looked down at his plate. He mauled a potato with his fork.

Olivia went steely. ’’They can\'t stop you if you want to go,’’ she said. ’’We\'ll all go.’’

Joe leaned forward, looked at each person at the table in turn. His eyes were very serious. ’’Do we want to make a terrible day worse for them? If Chuy were here, that\'s what he\'d be saying.’’

There was an awkward silence. ’’No, we don\'t want to do that,’’ Olivia said. ’’But if Bobo\'s been cleared . . .’’

’’Smith told me he had let them know I didn\'t kill her, but that they were still bitter,’’ Bobo said.

No one had a response to that. Manfred was able to finish his meal in peace.

Lemuel had not come in to sit with them that night. Fiji had taken home enough leftovers from her barbecue meal the night before that she was having her dinner at home. Chuy was visiting his brother in Fort Worth, so Joe had brought Rasta with him to the diner. The dog sat quietly in a compact circle by Joe\'s chair. Joe was rigid about no one feeding him from the table.

Shawn Lovell had come in to get three to-go meals, and he\'d given everyone a casual wave before carrying the bag of take-out containers back to the service station. Only Manfred, Bobo, Olivia, and Joe were left after the preacher exited.

As he finished his meal, Manfred wondered how Madonna managed to keep the diner doors open. But he was sure glad she did.

’’I\'m going to Fiji\'s class on Thursday night,’’ he said. ’’I couldn\'t say no. Anyone else want to try it out?’’

’’Sorry, I\'m just not in the mood for strangers,’’ Bobo said, and Manfred felt a stab of envy that he had a good excuse.

’’I have to pack,’’ Olivia said. ’’I have an early flight Friday.’’

’’Chuy is coming back on Thursday,’’ Joe said. ’’Sorry, buddy, seems like you\'re flying solo.’’

’’Great,’’ Manfred said. He had already been kicking himself for agreeing to go to Fiji\'s class, which would undoubtedly be all mystical kumbaya and talk of every woman\'s inner goddess.

On Thursday evening, Manfred was kicking himself even harder. The women gathered in Fiji\'s store ranged in age from twenty-one to sixty. A couple of the younger women had made an effort to look ’’witchy’’ in black dresses or leggings, heavy black eyeliner, and dyed black hair Goth with pentagrams, he told himself. The older women tended to the scarves-and-skirts style of witchiness, though one lady in her early forties was cinched into a black leather bustier and a black lace skirt, with huge silver earrings swaying from her multiply pierced ears. Manfred felt like he\'d come to a bad costume party, especially when the women stood to form a circle and held hands to begin their meditation. ’’The full moon will make tonight an especially favorable one for self-enlightenment,’’ Fiji told the group before she began the invocation.

Manfred had never linked his psychic ability to witchcraft, and he had no particular religious beliefs. Fiji\'s directions to implore Hecate to help those present develop their powers left him just a bit bored and faintly contemptuous. He had no idea who Hecate was. Only his certainty that Fiji herself possessed real power kept him in the store and holding the right hand of the forty-something would-be hottie and the left hand of a white-haired grandmother in a sweeping skirt.

While Fiji implored and invoked, Manfred did the mental math about what he\'d clear that month, and then abruptly his brain took a left turn down a dead-end road. He found himself catching a glimpse of the awful corpse of Aubrey Hamilton. As Fiji\'s singsong voice went on and on, Aubrey\'s skull, with its hanks of ragged hair, rotated toward him. The darkened teeth moved under their remnants of flesh and muscle. Horribly dead Aubrey said, ’’I truly loved him. Tell him.’’

Manfred\'s eyes flew open and he looked up to meet Fiji\'s. She was looking at him steadily, as if she knew he\'d had a true and direct communication. She smiled. And then her eyes shut and her head dropped again, and Manfred was left to compose a grocery list for his next trip to Davy to stave off any other unwanted revelations. As long as he told himself over and over again that he needed orange juice, bread, and peanut butter, plus lightbulbs, he could keep the dreadful vision at bay.

After those few seconds of freezing fear, he was bored silly. Two of the gray-haired women employed the Ouija board, which told them they were never too old for love. After that, there was a round of dream interpretation, though Manfred figured cynically that most of the dreams had been constructed well after the sleep session. If there was anyone approaching Fiji\'s talent there that night, Manfred could not detect it. Since he always watched the money flow, he\'d noticed right away that Fiji kept a pretty blue bowl on the counter, and he also noticed all the women dropped twenty dollars in it discreetly before they paraded out the door, chattering excitedly about astral projections and ley lines.

Fiji stood on her porch smiling after them, pleased with the evening and with herself, as far as Manfred could tell.

’’Was that a typical class?’’ Manfred asked, making sure his tone was polite and respectful.

Possibly he hadn\'t succeeded, because Fiji looked a bit taken aback.

’’I would say so,’’ she said. ’’You got a true reading, didn\'t you?’’

’’I had a vision,’’ he said, reluctantly. ’’At least, I guess it was a vision.’’

’’Tell me about it, if it wasn\'t too personal.’’

’’It wasn\'t personal at all. It was a message for someone else.’’ He described the brief scene. When Fiji heard about Aubrey\'s corpse talking, she shuddered.

’’Do you think I should tell him?’’ Manfred asked.

’’Of course,’’ Fiji said immediately. But she looked anything but happy. ’’If you have a true vision, you should tell the person involved. He\'ll be glad to hear that . . . if he believes you.’’

’’People mostly believe what they want to,’’ Manfred observed. ’’My whole business is based on that principle. How do you square this class with that piece of truth?’’

Fiji\'s round face was sad, and Manfred felt at once as though he\'d kicked a puppy. After a moment, she returned to the easy chair she\'d occupied during the ’’class.’’ She crossed her legs, and her boot-clad foot swung back and forth. ’’It\'s like teaching ballet,’’ she said. ’’Or piano.’’ She looked very serious.

Manfred laughed. ’’You mean, ninety-nine percent of the students have no aptitude at all, but you keep doing it for the one student who has talent?’’

’’Exactly,’’ she said. She thought that over and nodded some more. ’’Plus, it gives them something to do, something to think about besides the here and now. That\'s not a bad thing, either.’’

’’You sound like they were all fuzzy kittens,’’ Manfred said. ’’Don\'t you ever worry about them doing harm with what you\'re teaching them?’’

’’Meditation? Planchette work? Dream interpretation?’’

’’Witchcraft? Spells? Blood magic?’’

’’I don\'t teach them that,’’ Fiji said indignantly.

’’But it\'s the next step. They\'ll look at your books, ask you questions about your own spells, your own beliefs, and next thing you know . . .’’

He could tell from the way she hunched her shoulders that this had already happened. ’’The next thing I know, what?’’ she snapped.

’’You\'ll have a dead husband or an enslaved boyfriend,’’ Manfred said, speaking what he knew to be the unpleasant truth. From the corner of his eye, he saw the marmalade cat with the stupid name leap up from its cushion to stare at him. ’’I like you, Fiji, and I hope we\'re getting to be friends . . . but if you don\'t think about the next step, you\'re being irresponsible.’’ He shrugged and opened the front door. ’’Thanks for inviting me. See you later.’’ He couldn\'t think of anything else to say, and Fiji didn\'t open her mouth. After a moment of standing there feeling like a fool, and a jerk, Manfred left.

As he crossed the road, which was shockingly visible under the full moon, he chewed over his last pronouncement to Fiji. Though he was sorry they were at cross purposes, he still believed he\'d spoken the truth. He gave a mental shrug, shoving the problem to the back burner. He noticed that Olivia\'s car was gone from the rear of the pawnshop, and he was surprised she wasn\'t home packing for her trip. Then he noticed that the pawnshop was closed. Lemuel ought to be in there. Well, that was strange but none of his business. As he was unlocking his front door, he glanced back to see Mr. Snuggly sitting at the edge of the yard, watching him.

22

Fiji stood on her porch for a minute in the chilly night air, admiring the moonlight and the peace of the night. It felt good after the stuffiness of the store with all the witch-wannabes crowded inside, all their chatter and busyness.

She was a little disappointed in Manfred\'s negative reaction. He\'d definitely had a real vision there tonight, no matter how superior he tried to act. ’’Self-righteous idiot,’’ Fiji muttered as she locked her front door, but she was not truly angry. She hadn\'t really expected an enthusiastic participation. Nonetheless, she admitted to herself that she would have been happy to have an older witch around, someone she could talk to about how Manfred\'s opinion made her feel.

She decided she would think about it the next day, when she was rested . . . and calm. As she turned off lights in the big front room, her thoughts moved from one troubling topic to another. When she\'d been down at the Antique Gallery and Nail Salon to look at a small round table Joe had thought might interest her, Joe had told her that the Rev had preached at Home Cookin on Tuesday night. The Rev preached when he was worried. When the Rev was worried, there was cause for concern.

Mr. Snuggly came in the cat flap in the back door after Fiji had put on her nightgown and brushed her teeth. He ran into the room as she pulled down the sheets.

’’He got home okay?’’ she asked the cat. Mr. Snuggly stared up at her without expression . . . naturally. ’’Of course he did,’’ Fiji answered herself. ’’Or you\'d have come in a lot quicker. Well, let\'s turn in, Snug. It\'s been a long day.’’ The room was furnished with her great-aunt\'s bedroom set, though Fiji had stripped the wood of its chipped varnish and painted it sky blue. The walls were painted white, and the throw rugs on the floor were bright and colorful. It was a cheerful room, and Fiji was always glad when the time came for her to sleep in it. She went through her usual nighttime routine before climbing onto the high bed, pulling up the covers to relax with a clean face and a fairly clear conscience. Mr. Snuggly jumped up to curl at her side. Fiji fell asleep with her fingers in the cat\'s fur.

She remained asleep two hours later when something big brushed up against the outside of the house. Mr. Snuggly was awake, though, his golden eyes wide and unblinking as they followed the progress of the creature on the other side of the wall. When it paused outside Fiji\'s window, Mr. Snuggly hissed, his ears flattened back on his head. But after a few seconds, the cat heard huge feet padding away. Mr. Snuggly lay awake for a few minutes, staring into the darkness, to see if the creature would return. When it did not, he put his head down on his paws and slid back into sleep.

The same creature visited every inhabited house in Midnight, sniffing at the air, inspecting the doors and windows. It spent the longest time giving its attention to the trailer in which Madonna and Teacher lived with their baby. There, it rumbled, deep in its throat. But no one woke.

23

The next morning, Bobo turned on the local radio station while he was making toast for breakfast. The big area news was about a fire outside Marthasville, and Bobo found himself standing, knife poised over the butter tub, while he listened.

’’Arson investigators for Pioneer County are at the site of a blaze at a ranch house owned by Price Eggleston, thirty-two, of Marthasville. Eggleston said he and his friends used the house as a hunting lodge and that no one should have been in the building at the time of the blaze. Chief arson investigator Sally Kilpatrick said she\'d turn in her findings to the sheriff as soon as her investigation is complete. In other news, rancher Cruz Vasquez, in the Cactus Flats community south of Midnight, reported that one of his cows was killed by a wild animal . . .’’

Price Eggleston. He\'d heard that name before, hadn\'t he?

As usual, by the time Bobo went downstairs, Lemuel had been asleep in his apartment for over an hour. Bobo reopened the shop, turned on the lights, and sat down to read the customer register that Lemuel insisted they keep, though everything was entered on the computer as it ought to be. Lemuel had had two customers during the later part of the night, but that wasn\'t what Bobo was checking for.

Yes, Price Eggleston had been in the store a few weeks ago. Bobo had a good memory (one better than he wanted, actually), and he recalled the man clearly once he saw his register. Eggleston had come in with an antique gun he\'d wanted to pawn. The whole time he was in the shop, Eggleston had looked around constantly, as if he expected to see someone in the corners. Then he\'d haggled over the money he could get for the weapon, but with a suspicious lack of fire. The gun was worth something, though it was no fine family heirloom. In fact, it needed some work to be usable. Eggleston had suggested Bobo restore the gun.

’’I don\'t know anything about working on guns,’’ Bobo had replied, surprised. ’’You\'ll have to get someone else to do the work. You\'d get a lot more money for it if you have it cleaned up and in working order.’’


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