Midnight Crossroad Page 4

The opening of the two swinging doors into the kitchen attracted Manfred\'s gaze. He only had to turn his head to the right to see the girl who emerged from the kitchen carrying two salads. Manfred\'s attention was instantly riveted. His eyes followed her as she crossed the room to the two men by the door. She set the salads in front of them, returned to the counter to get two packages of dressing, and took the packages back to the table along with a basket of crackers. Manfred knew the people at his table were talking, but they might as well have been making paper chains for all he knew.

Fiji was talking baby talk to the child, so Manfred leaned to his left. ’’Chuy, excuse me. Who\'s that? The girl serving?’’

After a moment, it dawned on Manfred that the conversation at his table had stopped. He looked at Chuy, beside him, then at Fiji, Joe, and the dark man with the baby. They were all regarding him with some amusement.

’’That\'s Creek Lovell,’’ Chuy said, his grin broadening.

’’Her dad owns the Gas N Go on the other corner,’’ Fiji said. ’’By the way Manfred, meet Teacher.’’ She nodded at the dark man.

’’Good to meet you. How\'s the little . . .’’ And he stopped dead. For the life of him, he couldn\'t remember if the baby was a boy or girl. ’’Grady!’’ he said triumphantly.

’’Good save, man,’’ Teacher said. ’’Till you have \'em, they\'re hardly top of your list. Yeah, this is Grady, he\'s eight months old, and I do handyman work. So if you need some home repairs, give me a call.’’

’’Teacher can do anything,’’ Joe said. ’’Plumbing, electric, carpentry.’’

’’Thank you, my friend,’’ Teacher said, with a blinding smile. ’’Yes, I\'m a handy guy to have around. I help Madonna out here, and every now and then I work for Shawn Lovell over at the gas station, when he just has to have a night off. And I fill in for Bobo, too. Call me if you need me.’’ He fished a card out of his pocket and slid it across the table to Manfred, who pocketed it.

’’I\'m not good with anything but the most basic hammer jobs myself, so I\'ll be doing that,’’ Manfred said, and then reverted to a more interesting topic. ’’So, how old is Creek?’’ he asked. His attempt to sound casual was a dismal failure;even he knew that.

Joe laughed. ’’Not old enough,’’ he said. ’’Or, wait, maybe she is. Yeah, she graduated from high school last May. We gave her a gift certificate to Bed Bath and Beyond, so she could get stuff for her dorm room. But apparently she\'s not going to college, at least not this semester. You know why, Fiji?’’

Fiji\'s forehead wrinkled. ’’Something was wrong with their loan application, I think,’’ she said, shaking her head. ’’Something didn\'t come through with the financing. She\'s still hoping that\'ll get straightened out, even if her dad\'s lukewarm about her leaving. I feel bad for Creek;she didn\'t go to college, her puppy got killed, and her dad watches every move those kids make. A girl as young and smart as Creek doesn\'t need to be hanging around Midnight.’’

’’True,’’ Manfred said. Though height was not a major issue with Manfred, he was pleased to note that Creek was at least two inches shorter than he was. Her black hair was just down past her jawline, all one length, and it swung forward and backward with every step she took. Her skin was apparently poreless and clear, her eyebrows smooth dark strokes, her eyes light blue.

She was not really thin. She was not really curvy. She was just right.

’’A word to the wise,’’ Chuy said. ’’Don\'t let Shawn see you looking at his baby girl that way. He takes his job as her dad pretty seriously.’’ All the men at the table were smiling, and even Fiji looked amused.

’’Of course he does,’’ Manfred said, breaking himself out of his trance. ’’And I don\'t mean any disrespect,’’ he added. Was it disrespectful to hope someday he would be na**d with Creek Lovell? And was it even more disrespectful to pray that it would be sooner rather than later?

’’How old are you?’’ Joe asked.

’’Twenty-two.’’ Almost twenty-three, and it felt strange to try to minimize his age, rather than stretch it.

’’Oh.’’ Joe digested that. ’’You\'re closer to her age than anyone in town.’’ He met his partner\'s eye. Chuy shrugged. ’’May be a good thing,’’ he said. ’’Manfred, keep in the front of your mind the fact that all of us like the girl and none of us want her hurt.’’

’’It\'s at the top of my list,’’ Manfred said, which was not completely true. The way she walked, smooth and even, that was at the top of his list of things he noted about Creek Lovell. He reminded himself that she could have attended her senior prom only months ago . . . which went some way to quell the involuntary physical reaction he had when he watched her cross the room. Some way.

It was not quite full dark outside, and the family of outsiders had finished their meat loaf and fried chicken. The little girl was beginning to pick on her younger sibling, and the mom was casting desperate looks toward the kitchen. Madonna was cooking, to judge from the sounds of pots and pans and the sizzle of frying, and Creek hurried out with the plates for the two men sitting together. She put them down, gave the men an impersonal smile, and scurried over to the booth to take the payment tucked into the black plastic folder the dad was extending.

Just after the sun set, the bell over the door chimed as Bobo walked in with a man Manfred had never seen. As Manfred had noted before, his landlord was lucky enough to have a pleasing color palette;his hair was golden blond, his eyes were bright blue, his skin was a golden dusky tan. And he was tall, robust. His companion was more like Bobo bleached and dried and shrunken. Instead of blond, his hair was platinum: the same shade as Manfred\'s, but the newcomer\'s hair was natural. His eyes were a pale, pale gray. His skin was . . .

’’White as snow,’’ Manfred whispered, remembering the old fairy tale Xylda had read to him. ’’His skin was white as snow.’’

Joe glanced at Manfred and nodded. ’’Be cool,’’ he said, very quietly. ’’That\'s Lemuel.’’

Manfred planned on being cool as cool could be, since he wasn\'t sure exactly what Lemuel was but no one had given Nice Normal Family the same memo. The children fell silent as the newcomer glanced around the room. He smiled at the children, who looked terrified. At least they were too frightened to speak, which was almost certainly a good thing. The two visitors kept their eyes down on their plates after a quick glance upward, and they very deliberately did not look up.

The Rev didn\'t even stop reading his Bible.

’’This is beyond weird,’’ Manfred said in a voice no louder than a whisper, but the bleached man looked at him with a smile.

Good God, Manfred thought. He had a ridiculous impulse to jump to his feet and interpose himself between the bleached man and Creek Lovell, but it was really fortunate he didn\'t act on that. Creek returned with the family\'s change, and after she placed it on their table, she flung her arms around the bleached man\'s neck which Manfred wouldn\'t have done for any amount of money and said, ’’I haven\'t seen you in so long, Uncle Lemuel! How are you?’’

Released from their table by Creek\'s return, the mom and dad gathered all their belongings and shepherded the two kids, still openmouthed and staring, out the door of the Home Cookin Restaurant as quickly as possible. Manfred followed them with his eyes. Once outside, the mom stood on one side of the car, gripping the daughter\'s hand, the dad on the other side with the boy in his arms. They spoke to each other briefly and intensely across the hood of the car before piling in and speeding away.

’’Uncle’’ Lemuel (if he was Creek\'s uncle, Manfred was an insurance salesman) gingerly embraced the girl and gave her a kiss on the hair. Lemuel was not any taller than Manfred, and even more slightly built, but his presence was bigger than his body. The eye could not pass over Lemuel;it was caught and fascinated. Manfred thought, I could have skipped getting all this body art if I\'d dyed myself dead white, but he knew that he was simplifying.

The two strangers by the window had finally looked up now that Lemuel\'s back was to them. They looked determined not to flee or flinch. The scene seemed frozen for a long moment, and then Lemuel\'s eyes met Manfred\'s and held. It was like being fixed in place by an icicle.

Bobo started forward, gently nudging his companion, and the connection was broken. Thank God, Manfred thought, an acknowledgment he didn\'t make very often.

In seconds Bobo and Lemuel had seated themselves, Lemuel at Manfred\'s right and Bobo in the seat between Lemuel and Fiji. I can almost feel the cold coming off him, Manfred thought, and turned to look welcoming. He registered that the girl Creek had hustled over to ask the two men by the door if they needed anything, before pausing by the Rev\'s table. After that, she buzzed over to find out what Bobo would like to drink, and Manfred got to enjoy her nearness, but his pleasure was muted by Lemuel\'s proximity.

After opting for sweetened iced tea, Bobo said, ’’Lemuel, meet the newest guy in town. Manfred Bernardo, meet my basement tenant, Lemuel Bridger.’’

’’Pleased to meet you,’’ Manfred said, extending his hand. After a slight pause, Lemuel Bridger gripped it. An icy chill ran up Manfred\'s arm. He had to fight an impulse to yank his hand from Lemuel\'s and cringe back in his chair. Out of sheer pride, Manfred managed to smile. ’’Have you lived here long, Lemuel?’’

’’Almost forever,’’ the pale man answered. His eyes were fixed on Manfred, intense with interest. ’’A real long time.’’

His voice was not anything like Manfred had expected. It was deep and rough, and Lemuel\'s accent was just a bit unfamiliar. It was definitely a western accent, but it was like a western accent interpreted by someone from another country. Manfred was on the verge of asking Lemuel if he\'d been born in America, when he remembered that asking personal questions was not the style in Midnight and he\'d already asked one. Lemuel released his hand and Manfred lowered it into his lap casually, hoping the feeling would come back soon.

’’How are you going with your box schedule?’’ Bobo asked Manfred. ’’Still opening three a day?’’ He was smiling a nice warm smile, but Manfred knew that Bobo was not a happy man in his heart.

’’I have a day left,’’ Manfred said. (He\'d realized long ago that most often you had to react to what was on the surface.) ’’Then I\'ll be done. My bad luck that all my files and paper stuff must be in one of the last three boxes.’’

’’You don\'t go by what\'s in them?’’ Joe said. Creek was smiling, just a little, to Manfred\'s pleasure.

’’Nope. I just open the next three boxes in the stack,’’ Manfred confessed. He could read the complex of thoughts on Fiji\'s face: She had the impulse to tell him she would have helped;she had the awareness he didn\'t need or want her help;she made the decision to keep her mouth shut.

His grandmother had taught him how to read faces, and because of his natural aptitude, it hadn\'t taken long to develop his skills. While Fiji was an easy subject, and Bobo, too, Creek had depths and undercurrents. Joe and Chuy registered as agreeable and warm, but reserved. Lemuel was as opaque as a wall. Manfred struggled not to turn to his right to stare at his new acquaintance.

Lemuel, meantime, seemed just as interested in Manfred as Manfred was in him. He stared at Manfred\'s eyebrow, the one that had so many rings in it that the hair was hard to see. Since a few of Manfred\'s tattoos were visible in his short-sleeved T-shirt, Lemuel spent some time examining those, too. Manfred\'s right arm was decorated with a large ankh, and his left with a lightning bolt, his newest embellishment.

’’Did that hurt?’’ Lemuel asked Manfred when the conversation about the weather and Manfred\'s move had been exhausted.

’’Absolutely,’’ Manfred said.

’’Did you need to get \'em for your job, or you just like \'em?’’ The pale gray eyes in the snow-white face were fixed on him with curiosity.

’’A combination,’’ Manfred said. He felt compelled to be honest. ’’They\'re not exactly necessary for my job, but they make me stand out more, seem more interesting and alien, to the people who hire me. I\'m not just another smooth con man in a suit.’’ It felt strange to be telling so much truth.

Lemuel waited, obviously aware he\'d not gotten the whole answer. Manfred felt like he\'d lost the brakes on his conversational car as he continued, ’’But I did pick symbols I liked, ones that had a personal meaning. No point in getting tattooed with dolphins and rainbows.’’

From Fiji\'s sudden, deep flush, Manfred was sure she had a little dolphin tattooed somewhere and that she had felt very dashing at getting inked. He liked the witch a lot, but he couldn\'t seem to avoid stepping on her toes.

To Manfred\'s relief, Creek came to take their order, and not only did he get to break eye contact with Lemuel, he got to look at Creek some more: a win-win situation.

Like everyone else, he glanced at the door when the bell tinkled.

Olivia Charity had arrived. It was interesting, when Manfred thought about it later, the difference between Olivia\'s entrance and Lemuel\'s. Or maybe it was not the entrance that made the difference both of them had just walked in, no posing, no attitude. It was the reaction of the Home Cookin patrons. When Lemuel had joined them, wildness and death had walked in the door, though the drama inherent in that statement made Manfred uncomfortable. When Olivia stepped inside, it was sort of like the first appearance of Lauren Bacall in an old movie. You knew someone amazing and interesting had entered the room, and you knew she didn\'t suffer fools gladly.

Olivia registered everyone in the diner as she strode to the round table. Manfred didn\'t think she missed a thing. As she took the chair opposite him, the one between Chuy and Teacher, he stared. It was the first time he\'d seen her up close. Her hair was a reddish brown, almost auburn, but he suspected that was not her natural color. Her eyes were green, and he was sure they were colored by contact lenses. She was wearing ripped jeans and a brown leather bomber jacket that looked as soft as a baby\'s cheek, and underneath it she wore an olive green T-shirt. No jewelry today.

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