Midnight Crossroad Page 34

’’If you don\'t mind me saying so, you don\'t look too good.’’

Manfred was certainly willing to believe that. ’’Yeah, I didn\'t sleep well last night. Nightmares.’’

’’Every last person I\'ve talked to here today has said the same damn thing,’’ Smith said. ’’You seem to be having some kind of epidemic.’’

’’Maybe because it\'s the beginning of winter,’’ Manfred said absently, letting his gaze flicker over to the screen that waited for him. SandyStar521 was waiting to find out what her future held in store.

’’I\'ll let you get back to work,’’ said Smith, taking the hint. He moved, a little stiffly, toward the door. He seemed to be feeling the onset of winter himself. ’’You got a visitor.’’ Smiling, the sheriff nodded toward the front window. Mr. Snuggly was looking in, precariously balanced on the narrow sill.

’’Let\'s see,’’ said Manfred. ’’Maybe he wants to talk to you.’’

The sheriff looked at him oddly, and Manfred realized there hadn\'t been any touch of levity in his own tone. When Smith opened the door, Mr. Snuggly leaped down from the sill and arranged himself in front of the sheriff: looking up with his great golden eyes, tail wrapped neatly around his paws.

’’What do you need, cat?’’ Smith asked, smiling.

Manfred held his breath. But his hope was dashed when Mr. Snuggly did not answer Smith out loud. That would have been pretty amusing, and Manfred needed to see something amusing.

Instead of speaking, Mr. Snuggly turned to start back to Fiji\'s house. He looked over his shoulder to make sure Smith was following, and when Smith did not, the cat stopped to look back. Manfred didn\'t know if the invitation included him, so he waited until Mr. Snuggly gave a tiny jerk of his head, a gesture that seemed to include him as well as the sheriff.

As they walked up to Fiji\'s front porch, Manfred was sorry to see that the formerly abundant flowers were all but gone. Instead, there were pumpkins set out on either side of the door, carved into grotesque faces with considerable skill. Fiji had put out a sign reading, PUMPKIN CARVING WORKSHOPS! $25 INCLUDING PUMPKIN AND CARVING KNIFE!

She was working off her unhappiness.

When they entered the shop, Fiji had moved the two armchairs and the wicker table into the back of the house somewhere. She\'d set up four card tables with folding chairs, covered the tables with orange plastic table coverings, and put cloth aprons and the pumpkin carving knives at four spots on each table. Since the glass case had been broken and not replaced, there was just enough room.

’’I\'ve got fifteen minutes before my class comes,’’ she said. ’’Else I\'d ask you to sit and have a cup of tea or some soda.’’

’’That\'s all right, I need to get back to Davy,’’ Smith said. ’’Ms. Fiji, I\'ve got a few things to tell you.’’ He explained the content of the letters to her, much as he\'d done for Manfred.

’’Manfred, I\'m sorry,’’ was the first thing she said.

Manfred shrugged. ’’They had to do it.’’

’’Why sorry for Manfred?’’ Smith asked.

’’He was a friend of Shawn\'s,’’ she said, without missing a beat.

’’We both liked to fish,’’ Manfred said off the top of his head.

’’Really?’’ Clearly, Smith did not think it likely from Manfred\'s appearance that he\'d ever been in a boat, much less put a worm on a hook.

’’Sure, me and my grandmother went fishing all the time,’’ Manfred said truthfully. ’’She loved to be out on the water. Said it helped her clear her head. Of course, we ate the fish, too. Didn\'t have a lot of money. What do you do for fun, Sheriff?’’ he asked, from sheer curiosity.

’’As a kid, I liked to fish, too,’’ he said. ’’After I got into law enforcement, time for that got scarce. But I got interested in cold cases, and I belonged to a club that met once a month to talk about famous cases from the past. That was kind of relaxing. Now I work jigsaw puzzles.’’ He paused for a moment and returned to being the guarded, serious sheriff. ’’Ms. Fiji, is there anything you want to say to me about the Egglestons?’’

Fiji opened her eyes wide. ’’I can\'t think of a thing I want to say about them. Why?’’

’’I\'m still curious about them all catching cold simultaneously. And they mentioned your name.’’

’’Mentioned me? That\'s strange. I don\'t think I\'ve ever met the older Mr. Eggleston or his wife. I did see Price riding his motorcycle at poor Aubrey\'s funeral. At least, I guess that was him.’’

’’All right. Sheer curiosity, I guess. Were you out that night? The night it rained so much?’’

’’Only an idiot would voluntarily go out in weather like that.’’

He looked at her, taking her measure. He didn\'t seem totally satisfied with the conclusions he drew. ’’Eggleston and his buddies did make quite a scene at the funeral,’’ Smith said. ’’I understand he went to Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton yesterday and made an apology. Said it was just a tribute gone wrong.’’

’’Hmm. Well, he did the right thing.’’

’’I\'ll be on my way. I\'m glad I got a chance to talk to you, Fiji.’’

’’Same here, Sheriff.’’

He left, putting on his hat the moment he stepped outside. After the door shut behind him, Manfred said, ’’Give the guy a break, Fiji. You could have called him Arthur.’’

’’Yeah, well, I\'m not in the mood to make stuff easy today. You want to help me carry in the pumpkins?’’

’’Sure.’’ He needed to stretch. Too much time at the computer desk.

’’I really am sorry about Creek,’’ she said, when they\'d finished. They both sighed when they heard a car pull into Fiji\'s driveway. ’’They\'re already starting to come.’’

’’Yeah, I\'m sorry about Creek, too. But I guess this way is better for her. Where is Connor?’’

’’Where the two guys who came to beat up Bobo are, I guess,’’ she said, which was no answer at all.

’’And that is?’’ He was impatient.

’’If I can figure it out, you can,’’ she said, and then her first class member came in the door.

The following week, after everything had seemed to fall back to normal and the papers had stopped putting Connor\'s school picture on the front page every day (due to his confession, the district attorney charged him as an adult), Manfred got a phone call. It was a number he didn\'t recognize, but he got a lot of those, and he answered it without any expectation.

’’Do you know who this is?’’ the voice said.

’’Yes,’’ he answered, just as guardedly. It was Creek.

’’We\'re okay,’’ she said. ’’We\'re north of where we were. It\'s a lot colder! Hard to get used to.’’

’’Are you really okay?’’ He didn\'t know what else to ask.

’’As much as we can be. Dad got a job. Me, too. The same kind of work I did for Madonna.’’

She was waiting tables.

’’They treating you right?’’

’’Yeah, it\'s okay. I miss you.’’

’’Same here.’’

’’I\'ll try to call again sometime.’’

’’I want to hear from you.’’

’’I\'m glad to hear your voice. I really am. Okay. Bye.’’

’’Bye.’’

And then her voice was gone, and he believed he would never talk to her again. He thought again of the way her hair swung around her face, the smooth olive skin of her cheeks. He did not know if he should share this call with his neighbors or not. Somehow, he thought not. It seemed too personal and private.

Connecting Creek\'s call with loss, he suddenly found himself punching in his mother\'s number.

She was glad to hear his voice.

38

Kids didn\'t trick-or-treat in Midnight. It was too remote, too spooky. But there was kind of a local tradition in Davy to take the less anxious kids to the Witch\'s House. This had begun in Mildred Loeffler\'s time, and Fiji had happily continued the celebration. She and other inhabitants of Midnight worked on her house and yard for two days, to the disgust of Mr. Snuggly, who thought Fiji\'s time would have been better spent brushing him and stroking his fur and feeding him good things.

Fiji had pressed some of her neighbors into further service this Halloween. Joe and Chuy were wearing silver jumpsuits and huge white wings, and they stood on either side of the steps up to the porch, like patient gleaming angels. They were both wearing long blond wigs, which looked far more natural on Joe than it did on Chuy.

They took turns saying ’’Enter’’ to each child, in a deep, forbidding voice. If they\'d been dressed like devils instead of angels, it would have been a rare child who had the nerve to claim his or her candy.

All of Fiji\'s bushes were draped with fake spiderwebs. She\'d positioned huge spiders on each one. Fiji had said a few spells over them, and the eyes of the arachnids gleamed and sparkled and moved in a thoroughly disconcerting way. There was also a huge kettle smoking over a smoldering fire, all of which Fiji had under careful (and magical) control. Parents always thought it was done with batteries, but children somehow knew better.

Prodded by his mom and dad, who\'d thought his question was really cute, one boy asked Fiji (dressed in a Morticia dress and a pointed hat) if she weren\'t ’’afraid bad kids would come egg your house someday.’’ Fiji leaned down to look in his eyes, and he found he was more intent on those eyes than on her cleavage. ’’I don\'t think anyone will ever do that to me,’’ she said gently. ’’Do you?’’

After a moment of paralyzing fear, he said, ’’I sure won\'t.’’

She straightened, with a slight smile, and his parents were proud of him. But for the rest of his life, he dated that as the moment he realized the world would not always think he was as adorable as his parents did.

Manfred had been called into service, too. He made a great devil, somewhat to his own surprise. He was dressed in black jeans and a black silk turtleneck. He\'d grown his goatee out and colored it black for the night, he wore heavy eye makeup, and he had a black hoodie drawn up around his face. He would have looked even more striking, but he refused to wear the stretchy outfit Fiji had suggested when they\'d gone to the costume store. ’’I\'d look like Gollum,’’ he said, ’’but in black.’’

’’You\'re not that skinny,’’ she\'d retorted, disappointed, but he\'d kept his ground. She\'d asked the Rev to play a part, but he had told her that he intended to spend Halloween in the chapel in prayer for the souls of the dead. He\'d stuck to his guns, no matter how she begged. However, in compensation, Bobo had agreed to participate for the first time.

Bobo was the most handsome Perseus anyone had ever seen. He carried a remarkably lifelike Gorgon\'s head, and he wore a sort of toga and sandals. In the hand not clutching the head, he carried a large shiny sword from the pawnshop.

’’It ought to be curved,’’ Fiji had said. ’’And you ought to have winged sandals.’’

’’Well, no one\'s pawned any winged sandals, or sandals of any kind,’’ he said.

Bobo was not much of an actor he got upset when children found him genuinely frightening but when he held out the loathsome snake-covered skull and proclaimed, ’’Behold the head of the evil Medusa,’’ it was a showstopper. The least sensitive children wanted to touch the ’’head,’’ which was disgustingly slimy and slithery. Every now and then, when Fiji had a free moment, one of the snakes seemed to writhe a bit.

When the second hour of Fiji\'s open house was almost at an end, a mother from Davy said, ’’How on earth do you get it to look like the cat is talking?’’

’’Oh, did it look realistic?’’ Fiji had to struggle to keep a smile on her face.

’’It was so cute! It said, \'Get off my tail or I\'ll smother you in your sleep.\'’’

’’Just some batteries and a CD!’’ Fiji said. ’’And isn\'t that just what a cat should say?’’

They both laughed heartily. When the mother left, Fiji turned and glared at Mr. Snuggly, who yawned.

At nine o\'clock, Fiji went out onto the porch. The house had emptied of outsiders, but in the yard a few families and some teenagers were still enjoying the Halloween decorations. She adopted a dramatic pose on the porch, Manfred pressed ’’Play’’ on a CD player, and a fanfare rang out. When she had everyone\'s attention, Fiji proclaimed, ’’This ends the celebration of the season at the Witch\'s House!’’ She made a few grand passes in the air with her hands. The spiders\' eyes dulled, the cobwebs stopped moving, and the two angels bowed and retreated into the house. Fiji herself took a deep bow, to a smattering of applause, and straightened to say, ’’Have a safe drive home, y\'all, and I\'ll see you next year!’’

She wasn\'t spoilsport enough to turn off all the lights in the front yard, but she did lock the front door and draw all the curtains to make sure visitors knew the show was over. Fiji kicked off her high-heeled boots and collapsed into her rocking chair with a groan of relief.

’’Good job!’’ Manfred said. He pulled down his hoodie.

’’Thanks, all of you,’’ she said. ’’Anyone who wants a beer, there are plenty in the refrigerator. And there are some trays back there, if you wouldn\'t mind bringing them out. I\'ll get up in a minute. My feet are killing me.’’

Soon all the food was assembled on one card table, folding chairs were up and in use, and everyone had a beverage. Chuy and Joe were glad to get out of the silver jumpsuits and into their normal daywear.

Those wings had to be heavy, thought Manfred, who\'d been curious about their feathery appearance. He saw the jumpsuits, neatly folded in Fiji\'s storeroom/guest bedroom, but the wings were nowhere in sight. Across the hall, Bobo retired to Fiji\'s bedroom to pull off his tunic and sandals, and put on his jeans and flannel shirt and sneakers. The golden sparkly stuff Fiji had put in his hair was coming off everywhere. He stepped out to see Mr. Snuggly crouching before his dish in the kitchen, eating some chopped beef for his Halloween treat.


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