Midnight Crossroad Page 3

North of the pawnshop, the river angled up to hug the western side of Davy and broadened into a lake. Lakes meant swimmers and boaters and fishermen and rental cottages, so Davy was busy most weekends year-round and throughout the week in the summer. Manfred had learned this from reading his Texas guidebook.

Manfred had promised himself that when he felt able to take some time off, he\'d hike up to the Roca Fría and have a picnic, which the guidebook (and Bobo) had promised him was a pleasant outing. It was possible to wade the shallows of the river in the summer, he\'d read. To cook out on the sandbars. That actually sounded pretty cool.

Manfred\'s mother, Rain, called on a Sunday afternoon. He should have expected her call, he realized, when he checked the caller ID.

’’Hi, Son,’’ she said brightly. ’’How\'s the new place?’’

’’It\'s good, Mom. I\'m mostly unpacked,’’ Manfred said, looking around him. To his surprise, that was true.

’’Got your computers up and running?’’ she asked, as though she were saying, ’’Have you got your transmogrifinders working?’’ That shade of awe. Though Manfred knew for certain that Rain used a computer every day at work, she regarded his Internet business as very specialized and difficult.

’’Yep, it\'s all working,’’ he said. ’’Are you okay?’’

’’Yeah, the job is going all right.’’ A pause. ’’I\'m still seeing Gary.’’

’’That\'s good, Mom. You need someone.’’

’’I still miss you,’’ she said suddenly. ’’I mean, I know you\'ve been gone for a while . . . but even so.’’

’’I lived with Xylda for the past five years,’’ Manfred said evenly. ’’I don\'t see how much you could miss me now.’’ His fingers drummed against the computer table. He knew he was too impatient with his mother\'s bursts of sentimentality, but this was a conversation they\'d had more than once, and he hadn\'t enjoyed it the first time.

’’You asked to live with her. You said she needed you!’’ his mother said. Her own hurt was never far below the surface.

’’She did. More than you. I was weird, she was weird. I figured it would suit you better if I was with her.’’

There was a long silence, and he was very tempted to hang up. But he waited. He loved his mother. He just had a hard time remembering that some days.

’’I understand,’’ she said. She sounded tired and resigned. ’’Okay, call me in a week. Just to check in.’’

’’I will,’’ he said, relieved. ’’Bye, Mom. Stay well.’’ He hung up and went back to work. He was glad to answer another e-mail, to respond to a woman who was convinced that he was both talented and discerning, a woman who didn\'t blame him forever for doing the obvious thing. In his job, he was nearly omnipotent he was taken seriously, and his word was seldom questioned.

Real life was so different from his job, and not always in a good way. Manfred tugged absently on his most-pierced ear, the left. It was strange that he seldom got a reading on his mother. And really strange that he\'d never realized it before. That was probably significant, and he should devote some time to figuring it out. But not today.

Today, he had money to make.

After another hour at his desk, Manfred became aware he was hungry. His mouth started to water when he wondered what was on the restaurant menu this evening. He\'d checked the Home Cookin sign, so he knew the place was open on Sundays. Yep, time to eat out. He locked up the house as he left. As he did so, he wondered if he was the only one in Midnight who locked doors.

Before he could give himself the treat of a dinner he hadn\'t cooked, he had to perform his social duty. He looked both ways on Witch Light (nothing coming, as usual) and crossed to Fiji\'s house. He\'d been eyeing her pink-flowered china plate and her clear plastic pitcher in a guilty way since he\'d washed them. He\'d enjoyed the cookies and lemonade, and the least he could do was walk across the street to return Fiji\'s dishes.

The previous Thursday evening, he\'d taken a break from work to watch the small group of women who came to Fiji\'s ’’self-discovery’’ evening. Manfred had recognized the type from his own clientele: women dissatisfied with their humdrum lives, women seeking some power, some distinction. There was nothing wrong with such a search in fact, people searching for something above and beyond the humdrum world were his bread and butter but he doubted any of them had the talent he\'d seen lurking in Fiji when he\'d opened the door to find her standing there in jeans and a peasant blouse, a plate in her left hand and a pitcher in her right.

Fiji was not what he thought of as his ’’type.’’ It didn\'t bother him at all that she was older than he was;he found that suited him just fine, as a rule. But Fiji was too curvy and fluffy. Manfred tended to like hard, lean women tough chicks. However, he had to appreciate the home Fiji had made for herself. The closer you got to the stone cottage with its patterned-brick trim, the more charming it was. He admired the flowers that were still burgeoning in the pots and barrels in Fiji\'s yard, despite the fact that it was late September. The striped marmalade cat known as Mr. Snuggly displayed himself elegantly under a photinia. Even the irregular paving stones leading to the porch were laid in an attractive pattern.

He knocked, since Fiji\'s place wasn\'t open on Sunday.

’’Come in!’’ she called. ’’Door\'s open.’’

A bell over the door tinkled delicately as he went in, and he saw Fiji\'s unruly head suddenly appear over the top of the counter.

’’Hi, neighbor,’’ he said. ’’I came to return your stuff. Thanks again for the cookies and the lemonade.’’ He held out the plate and pitcher, as if he had to provide evidence of his good intentions. He tried not to stare too obviously at the shelves in the shop, which were laden with things he considered absolute junk: books about the supernatural, ghost stories, and guides to tarot readings and dream interpretation. There were hanging sun catchers and dream catchers. There were two mortar-and-pestle sets that were pretty nice, some herb-gardening guides, alleged athames, tarot cards, Ouija boards, and other accoutrements of the New Age occultist.

On the other hand, Manfred liked the two squashy flowered armchairs sitting opposite each other in the center of the floor, a magazine or two on the small table between them. Fiji stood up, and he saw she was flushed. It didn\'t take a psychic to tell she was really irritated about something.

’’What\'s wrong?’’ he asked.

’’Oh, this damn spell,’’ she said, as if she were talking about the weather. ’’My great-aunt left it to me, but her handwriting was atrocious, and I\'ve tried three different ingredients because I can\'t figure out what she meant.’’

Manfred had not realized that Fiji openly admitted she was a witch, and for a second he was surprised. But she had the talent, and if she wanted to lay herself open to judgment like that, okay. He\'d encountered much weirder shit. He set down the plate and the pitcher on the counter. ’’Let me see,’’ he offered.

’’Oh, I don\'t mean to trouble you,’’ she said, obviously flustered. She had on reading glasses, and her brown eyes looked large and innocent behind the lenses.

’’Think of it as a thank-you note for the cookies.’’ He smiled, and she handed over the paper.

’’Damn,’’ he said, after a moment\'s examination. Her great-aunt\'s handwriting looked like a dirty-footed chicken had danced across the page. ’’Okay, which word?’’

She pointed to the scribble that was third on the list. He looked at it carefully. ’’Comfrey,’’ he said. ’’Is that an herb?’’

Her eyes closed with relief. ’’Oh, yes, and I have some growing out back,’’ she said. ’’Thanks so much!’’ She beamed at him.

’’No problem.’’ He smiled back. ’’I\'m going down to Home Cookin for dinner. You want to come?’’

He\'d had no intention of asking her, and he hoped he wasn\'t sending the wrong message (if a casual dinner invitation could be the wrong message), but there was something vulnerable about Fiji that invited kindness.

’’Yeah,’’ she said. ’’I\'m out of anything remotely interesting to eat. And it\'s Sunday, right? That\'s fried chicken or meat loaf day.’’

After she locked the shop (now Manfred knew he was not the only one who continued his city ways) and patted the cat on its head, they walked west. Manfred had gotten into the habit of casting a glance down the driveway that ran to the back of the pawnshop. Though his view wasn\'t as good from the south side of the street, he did it now.

Because he was an observant kind of guy, Manfred had noticed soon after he\'d moved in that there were usually three vehicles parked behind Midnight Pawn. Bobo Winthrop drove a blue Ford F-150 pickup, probably three years old. The second car was a Corvette. Manfred was no car buff, but he was sure this was a classic car, and he was sure it was worth huge bucks. It was usually covered with a tarp, but Manfred had caught a glimpse of it one night when he was putting out the trash. The Vette was sweet. The third car was relatively anonymous. Maybe a Honda Civic? Something small and four-door and silver. It wasn\'t shiny new, and it wasn\'t old.

Manfred hoped the hot chick, Olivia, drove the Vette. But that would be almost too good, like pancakes with real maple syrup and real butter. And who was the second tenant? Manfred thought the smart thing to do would be to wait until someone volunteered the information.

’’How do you get enough traffic through the store?’’ he asked Fiji, because he\'d been silent long enough. ’’For that matter, how does anyone in Midnight keep a business open? The only busy place is the Gas N Go.’’

’’This is Texas,’’ she said. ’’People are used to driving a long way for anything. I\'m the only magical-type place for well, I don\'t know how big an area, but big. And people crave something different. I always get a decent crowd on my Thursday nights. They come from forty or fifty miles away, some of \'em. I do some Internet business, too.’’

’’You don\'t sell love charms or fertility charms out your back door?’’ he asked, teasing.

’’Great-Aunt Mildred did something like that.’’ She looked at him with an expression that dared him to make something of it.

’’I\'m cool with that,’’ Manfred said immediately.

She only nodded, and then they were at the restaurant. He opened the door for her, and she went in ahead of him, her expression somewhat chilly, as far as Manfred could interpret it.

Home Cookin was almost bursting with activity this evening. Joe and Chuy were sitting at the big round table. There was a husky man with them, someone he hadn\'t met, jiggling a fussy baby. Manfred noticed cars far more than he did babies (and shoes and fingernails), but he thought this infant was the same size as the one he\'d seen the first time he\'d been in Home Cookin. That made the chances good that this was Madonna\'s baby;he figured the man was Madonna\'s, too.

As the electronic chime sounded and the door swung shut behind them, Manfred looked to his right. The two tables for two by the front window were occupied, and one of the four booths on the west wall. Reverend Emilio Sheehan (the Rev) sat by himself at his usual table, not the one next to the door but the second one. And his back was to the entrance, a placement that practically screamed ’’leave me alone.’’ This evening he had brought a Bible to read. It lay open on the table before him. Two men, not natives of Midnight, were at the table closest to the door. They were preoccupied with their drinks and menus.

Though Manfred was sure he hadn\'t met all the townspeople, he knew the family sitting in the U-shaped booth was also just passing through. The four of them looked too . . . too shiny to be residents. Mama had subtly streaked hair, breast implants, and expensive-casual slacks and sweater. Dad was wearing rich-rancher clothes (gleaming leather boots and a pristine cowboy hat). The kids a boy about three or four, a girl maybe two years older were looking around them for something to do.

’’Excuse me!’’ the mother called to Madonna, who was pouring tea for Chuy. ’’Do you have some colors or games for the children?’’

Madonna turned to regard her with astonishment. ’’No,’’ she said. After she put the tea up on the counter, she vanished into the kitchen.

The mom gave the dad a significant look, as if to say, I don\'t like this, but I\'m not going to rile the natives. Manfred deduced it was some planning error on the dad\'s part that had led to this unlikely family eating dinner at Home Cookin. He did not think the dad was going to get to forget about it for a couple of days. However, the family cheered up when Madonna brought out their dinner plates on a huge tray. The food looked good and smelled wonderful. Madonna had help tonight: Manfred caught a glimpse of someone moving around in the kitchen when the swinging doors were open. As the family began to eat, the restaurant grew quieter.

Manfred and Fiji had taken seats at the big round table he in the same chair he\'d had before, facing the front door, and Fiji by the man holding the baby, with an empty chair or two between her and Manfred. Maybe she was more steamed about his selling-spells remark than he\'d thought. Joe and Chuy said hello to Manfred, but they could hardly wait to tell Fiji about a woman who\'d brought in an old book for Joe to look at. Manfred gathered that the book was an account of witches in Texas in the early part of the twentieth century.

Madonna\'s man was putting a bib on the baby and seemed pretty busy with the process, so Manfred put off introducing himself. While he waited, he evaluated the newcomers by the door. The two strangers at the small table fit in a bit better than the affluent family. They were both wearing worn jeans and T-shirts. Their boots were scuffed. The taller of the two, a dark-haired man, was wearing an open plaid sport shirt over his tee. His beard and mustache were neatly trimmed. The smaller man had medium brown hair;he was clean-shaven. Manfred set them in their early thirties.

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